Finding New Clean & Renewable Energy Systems

l-r, Douglas Thomson, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michael Freund and Torsten Hegmann, Chemistry

by Maureen Paisley
Researchers at the University of Manitoba are part of an international collaboration with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) working to find efficient ways to convert renewable energy resources: solar, electrical and wind energy into chemical fuels, such as hydrogen. 

Michael Freund, Torsten Hegmann, Chemistry; and Douglas Thomson, Electrical and Computer Engineering, have received 1.2 million dollars, over three years, in combined funding, from the Province of Manitoba:  Science, Technology Energy & Mines ($600,000) with matching funds from Caltech to develop the components that could be used to create a clean and renewable fuel-generating system. 

The University of Manitoba has built world-class facilities worth over $10 million dollars over the past five years, and the facilities, as well as the University of Manitoba scientists, are critical to the project's overall success.

Freund is a Canada Research Chair and brings knowledge and expertise in the area of conducting polymers, electrochemistry and self assembly as well as characterization technology (x-ray photoelectron microscopy and electron microscopy).  Hegmann brings knowledge and expertise in self-assembly, organic chemistry and nanotechnology as well as characterization technology (thermal methods and x-ray diffraction).  Thomson brings knowledge and expertise in semiconductors, high frequency electronic characterization and scanning probe microscopy. 

One way to get a clean hydrogen fuel source is by using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.  More energy from sunlight strikes the earth in one hour than all of the fossil energy consumed on the planet in a year - so what is missing is not the solar energy but the science and technology for its efficient widespread use.

The devices in simple high school chemistry lab experiments split water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis.  These devices typically contain a platinum catalyst which is very expensive (more than $800 per ounce), and as a result is not practical for mass production.  One possible alternative is to find a robust efficient way to split water with catalysts made from earth abundant (and cheap) elements that would be cost effective for widespread use of the technology.  Another issue is the assembly of nanostructured semiconductors, (used to create electricity from light), and these catalysts in a way that efficiently splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.  This is where researchers at the University of Manitoba come into the picture.

The project's approach will be to develop an artificial photosynthetic system using a modular development method.  The distinct components, the photoanode, the photocathode, water splitting catalysts and the proton-conducting membrane to separate the hydrogen and oxygen side will be developed separately in the different labs containing complementary expertise.  The goal will be to eventually assemble the components into a prototype of a complete water-splitting device.

The development of photoanode and photocathode nanorods will occur largely at Caltech where initial progress has already been made.  Characterization of the nanorods, in terms of composition and structure will take place at the U of M (Freund and Thomson) in the state-of-the-art Manitoba Regional Materials and Surface Characterization and NanoFab facilities.  The development of new low-cost catalysts is taking place at both Caltech and MIT.  New strategies for immobilizing these catalysts will be developed at Caltech and characterized at the U of M (Freund and Thomson).  In parallel, major efforts on developing strategies for assembling and orienting nanorods (Hegmann) and creating ionic/electronic conducting membranes (Freund) will take place at the U of M.

The overall goal is to develop viable technologies that will help transition the world's dependence on fossil fuels to sunlight and other renewable sources of electricity.  With Manitoba's abundance of renewable resources, scientists at the University of Manitoba are ensuring that we are at the forefront of the research and development of clean energy technology.