New energy “grand challenge” draws scientists from across Yale

Yale scientists are combining previously unrelated disciplines in a broad effort to tackle what they describe as the “grand challenge” of energy.

Around 100 scientists and scholars gathered June 17 for a symposium examining the Why, How and What of Solar Energy Conversion at Yale’s West Campus, marking the first symposium at the newly renovated facilities of the Energy Sciences Institute (ESI). 

Opening the event, ESI Director Gary Brudvig recalled Yale’s purchase of the West Campus as a tipping point in bringing greater scientific focus to the subject of sustainability. The 2007 purchase greatly expanded the university’s capacity for science and engineering, adding around a third to Yale’s real estate – together with some 1.6 million square feet of buildings – and with it an inevitable increase in energy usage. 

“We had the opportunity to examine one of the grand challenges at Yale and across the world – the need for viable renewable energy and carbon management solutions,” said Brudvig, who is the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry, and of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

Alongside expanded sustainability initiatives rolled out across Yale, the Energy Sciences Institute was established in 2011 as a hub for interdisciplinary research focused on the physical sciences and a collective focus on scientific approaches to energy.

Setting the context for energy use at Yale, Anthony Kosior, Director of Utilities and Engineering pointed to consistent growth in Yale’s approach since 1973, when then university president Kingman Brewster described the “thoughtful cooperation” needed for energy conservation to succeed. President Peter Salovey expanded Yale’s sustainability initiatives in 2014, including building design to drive down consumption significantly, and through renewable solar installations at Fisher Hall, Kroon Hall, and West Campus.

Combined environmental concerns and the decline in our petroleum reserves has driven enormous interest in the development of alternative sustainable energy vectors to replace fossil fuels. The Energy Sciences Institute now connects interdisciplinary science across the departments of Chemistry, Geology & Geophysics, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Applied Physics, Physics, Chemical & Environmental Engineering and Electrical Engineering, towards the development of new ways to generate and store energy from renewable sources such as the wind and sun.

Carbon Sequestration

In step with the exploration of future energy storage solutions, the ESI’s Jay Ague, Professor of Geology & Geophysics, studies the carbon cycle, carbon sequestration and other deep earth questions, measuring fluid flow, chemical reactions, mass transfer, and heat transfer in Earth’s crust and upper mantle. Until we discover more sustainable energy sources, an “optimal transitional” step is to take waste CO2 and dispose of it safely. Integrating fieldwork, chemical and isotopic analyses of rocks and minerals, and numerical simulations, Ague’s experiments inject CO2 deep underground in the roots of mountain belts to measure the process of mineralization and carbon capture.

Efficient Storage and Conversion of Renewable Energy

From the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Judy Cha’s research group focuses on the synthesis and transport measurements of two-dimensional layered chemical compounds, in particular topological insulator nanoribbons and nanoplates. The group uses analytical scanning transmission electron microscopy and electron energy-loss spectroscopy to investigate the fundamental structure-property relationships of the synthesized nanomaterials for novel electronic, photonic, and plasmonic properties.

With the largest energy density over any other fuel in the world, understanding and manipulating hydrogen is also a focus of Cha’s lab, which is using model 2D layered materials and electrochemical “water splitting” to produce hydrogen. The researchers are aiming to increase the surface area of nanomaterials to catalyze hydrogen-evolution reactions.

Exploring novel chemistry and materials to tackle challenges in catalysis and high-density energy storage, Hailiang Wang’s lab focusses on the acceleration of chemical reactions and structure-property correlations and chemical processes in electrochemical devices. In addition to research into catalyst structures for hydrogen evolution and carbon dioxide conversion, he also investigates new chemical interactions for lithium and sodium batteries, and advanced characterizations and mechanistic studies through the x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and electron microscopy instrumentation housed in the adjacent West Campus Material Characterization Core. 

Also from the Department of Chemistry, Nilay Hazari is developing carbon neutral systems for hydrogen storage using formic acid and methanol. As a potentially clean energy source, hydrogen can be directly or electrochemically combusted within a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell. Chemical hydrogen storage based on the dehydrogenation of small molecules, the focus of Hazari’s research, is an attractive alternative to the problematic storage, transport and low energy density of gaseous hydrogen.

Transformative Technologies

Led by André Taylor from the Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering, the Transformative Materials and Devices group focuses on emerging photovoltaics and devices for energy conversion and storage. Here the onus is on the design and study of transformative technologies that have the ability to change the status quo and promote the adoption of sustainable energy generation and use. Following a catastrophic earthquake that devastated Haiti’s electricity sectors in 2010, Taylor’s research team has partnered with Project Bright, a student initiative at Yale, to provide a clean energy hub at a school in Port-de-Paix, Haiti.

Connecting Traditional Disciplines

The need to develop cost-effective alternative energy sources to meet current and future demand in an environmentally responsible manner continues to drive the work of the Institute’s faculty and students. “My vision is that, by learning what nature does best and modeling the key processes, we can then create new solar chemical devices beyond the conventional paradigm and achieve high-efficiency and long-term stability at a low cost,” says Shu Hu, Assistant Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering and the newest resident of the Institute at West Campus.

Brudvig believes the answer to the world’s energy problem is all around us. After all, plants have been turning sunlight into food for millions of years. Alongside fellow chemists Robert Crabtree, Victor Batista and Charles Schmuttenmaer, the challenge is to mimic natural processes in the lab, transforming sunlight into useable fuel.

These and other processes across the Institute involve hundreds of steps and many different components, with each member tackling a different piece of the challenge. “The energy challenge requires an unprecedented scientific response that transcends traditional boundaries”, Brudvig says. The call is being realized with the growing research and education programs that connect within the Yale Energy Sciences Institute.