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Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

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Supporting Energy and Sustainability


fuel cellsStudents peer underneath a GM hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

Abruna and StudentsHector Abruna

Carbon nanotube based photodiodeCarbon nanotube-based photodiode, electrons (blue) and holes (red)

factoriesResearch probes the conservation alternatives that will reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel-based technologies.

Energy and Sustainability Challenges in Cornell Chemistry

Organic photovoltaics, eco-friendly plastics, multi-talented nanotubes, even fuel cells that go the distance — all are among the challenges that energize a sustainable future for Cornell Chemistry. 

Beyond the traditional core strengths of Cornell chemists — to pose the right questions, develop deeper understanding of matter, and lead problem-solving teams — new challenges are addressed through connectivity across virtually all scientific and engineering disciplines at one of the world’s most comprehensive research universities.

These connections — and exciting research opportunities at Cornell Chemistry — arise through visionary collaborations like the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (http://www.sustainablefuture.cornell.edu/index.php) and the Energy Materials Center at Cornell (http://www.efrc.chem.cornell.edu/).

PEM Fuel Cells Go the Distance

Cornell chemists’ goal in PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell technology — to develop new electrocatalysts for fuel cell anodes, cathodes and conducting-support materials for electrocatalysts — advanced with a major discovery: Catalysts made from platinum nanoparticles can make fuel cells more stable, longer lasting, and more resistant to carbon monoxide “poisoning.” To create a catalyst that can tolerate more CO, the Cornell group led by Emile M. Chamot Professor Héctor D. Abruña deposited platinum nanoparticles on a support material they developed of titanium and tungsten. Then they built prototype fuel cells to compare the new material’s performance with pure platinum. “The platinum cell was readily poisoned by CO and conked out early,” Abruña reported. “But ours was still running like a champ!”

Photovoltaic Applications Carbon Nanotubes

Studies of the remarkably versatile carbon nanotubes, in a Cornell Chemistry group led by Professor Jiwoong Park are revealing new applications for the rolled-up sheets of carbon: As optical scattering antennae to control, absorb, and emit certain colors of light at the nanoscale, and as more efficient photovoltaic cells. “As electrons move through the nanotubes, they become excited and create new electrons that continued to flow,” Park explains. “Carbon nanotubes could be the nearly ideal photovoltaic cell, creating more electrons by utilizing the spare energy from the light.”

Charge Generation in Organic Photovoltaics

While other investigators propose a variety of organics with good absorptive properties as candidate photovoltaics and strive to improve their performance — Professor John Marohn is asking a more fundamental question: What is the nature of charge generation in photovoltaic materials? “To answer this question, a better understanding of exciton dynamics near domain interfaces must be achieved,” says Marohn. His Cornell group pairs Electric Force Microscopy with wavelength-variable light, in organic-photovoltaics devices.

Eco-friendly Plastics

Society depends on polymeric materials now more than at any other time in history. Although synthetic polymers are indispensable in a diverse array of applications, ranging from commodity packaging and structural materials to technologically complex biomedical and electronic devices, their synthesis and post-use fate pose important environmental challenges. The focus of the Coates Research Group is the development of routes to polymers with reduced environmental impact. In this work, they aim to transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources, and are developing synthetic methods that limit energy and raw-material consumption. In addition, they are designing materials that will eventually degrade into non-toxic materials, and have properties comparable to current commodity plastics.

Connecting to a More Sustainable Future

With that much innovative energy and burgeoning talent, Cornell sustainability research frequently grows beyond the bounds of existing programs. In fact, that kind of inspired growth must have been what David R. Atkinson (Cornell Class of 1960) and his wife, Patricia Atkinson, had in mind when they made the historic gift in 2010 to establish the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF). As Mr. Atkinson puts it, this center can be a “catalyst bringing knowledge from different disciplines together to address sustainability.” He envisioned Cornell faculty and students partnering “with entrepreneurs, businesses, NGOs and governments to magnify the impact of the knowledge and ingenuity. Cornell is the best-positioned university in America, and arguably the world, to develop solutions,” 

Professors Abruna, Coates, Marohn and Park are among more than 235 faculty fellows (from 55 departments in every college and school at Cornell University) in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF). The center’s director (and Cornell’s John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology) Francis J. DiSalvo, says: “Discoveries with a tangible, real-world impact are possible when we bring together dedicated people in diverse disciplines — through problem-oriented research and external partnerships — to create synergies and focus the scientific process.  We’re catalyzing new intellectual collisions to spark discovery and real progress for humanity!”

The ACSF interdisciplinary collaboration also excels as a launch pad for more university-based research programs and as a highly accessible portal for university-industry partnerships, according to DiSalvo, whose own research program explores applications for new solid state materials.

Centers Growing Centers

More research support (U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, for example, and the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation) comes to universities that care about a sustainable future. One enterprising program that grew from Cornell’s sustainability center is the Energy Materials Center (EMC2) at Cornell (http://www.emc2.cornell.edu). At EMC2, Professor Abruña, the center’s director, says: “Our biggest challenges relate to materials performance in energy generation, conversion and storage technologies. We’re meeting those challenges by preparing and characterizing novel nanoscale materials — including some with ordered intermetallic phases as well as ‘atomically engineered’ complex oxides. Of course that requires novel experimental tools and computational platforms to characterize the materials — so we develop those tools, too.” The EMC2 was funded ($17.5 million) in 2010 as one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s EFRCs (Energy Frontier Research Centers). It aims to achieve a detailed understanding — via a combination of materials synthesis, experimental and computational approaches — of how the nature, structure and dynamics of nanostructured interfaces affect energy generation, conversion and storage — with an emphasis on fuel cells and batteries.