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National Science Foundation CAREER Award will fund solar cell project to mimic photosynthesis

March 1, 2016

Amanda Morris works in her lab with a student
Amanda Morris, assistant professor of chemistry in the Virginia Tech College of Science, works with chemistry doctoral student Spencer Ahrenholtz of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a campus lab to test the rate of electron transport through various metal-organic framework films.

Plants are able to chemically covert light energy to a chemical energy -- sugars that serve as nature’s fuel. The process is photosynthesis. Basic for plants, difficult for humans to mimic. Yes, we have solar energy panels and cells, but when it comes to storing that energy – as plants do – people fall short.

Amanda Morris hopes to remedy that deficit. The long-term goal: Create solar energy gear for houses that can store energy for later use – when the sun is down or on a rainy day.

Morris, an assistant professor with the Department of Chemistry, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, will use a five-year, $605,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award to fabricate artificial photosynthetic assemblies that can covert solar energy into chemical fuels such as methane for long-term storage and use. Making up the assemblies will be 3-D polymers known as metal-organic framework thin film arrays.

Of specific interest for the work supported by the CAREER award is understanding how to make the polymers act as efficient transporters of electrons. The work will uncover fundamental knowledge as to how to construct materials capable of mimicking the action of plants – or better yet besting them.

It turns out, plants only have a 3 percent efficiency of converting absorbed light into food, or energy, and any artificial process developed by researchers will have to increase that rate by a large amount.

“The inspiration truly comes from plants. They can do what we want, but the issue is that they are about 3 percent efficient at the process,” said Morris. “And, no one is going to invest in a 3 percent efficient energy system. So, I look at how plants do what they do and try to make it better through chemical intuition and discovery. We need to do what plants do on a larger, more efficient scale.”

In Morris’ lab at Virginia Tech’s Hahn Hall South, Morris and her students already are testing various metal organic frameworks and their ability to serve as electron conductors in a chemistry lab setting.

The project addresses critical, present-day environmental, and energy technology challenges central to many scientific disciplines, including chemistry, physics, and biology, according to the National Science Foundation. The project was given the award by the federal agency’s Solid State and Materials Chemistry Program and the Chemical Structure, Dynamic & Mechanism B Program, Chemistry division. 

The long-term hope is for the arrays to one-day serve as solar power units for houses that need not be reliant on constant sunlight to operate, but use stored energy from light to remain powered on during night, or a cloudy, overcast day.

“Energy storage is a huge field,” added Morris. “Storing energy in chemical fuels is just one option. We could use batteries – think Tesla’s home battery as an example. We could use super capacitors. We really should be feverishly exploring all options, but right now not one is viable from a balance of efficiency, cost, size, and stability.”

As part of this effort, Morris is part of a preliminary, multi-university group lead by Shashank Priya, the Robert E. Hord Jr. Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, on developing house-scale versions of this technology that could allow single homes to operate “off the grid,” that is without electric-based power.

The CAREER grant is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award, given to creative junior faculty likely considered to become academic leaders of the future. 

Among Morris’ recent awards are a $55,000 2016 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in Chemistry awarded in February, a $450,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2014, and a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities in 2013 for research involving earlier efforts into the oxidation of water, a critical step in artificial photosynthesis, as well as the development of efficient and cheap solar cells to enable wide-spread adoption of solar energy.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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