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Sustainability and Solar Energy Conversion

USD Researchers Look to Harness Solar Power through Photocatalysis

“The exhaustion of our fossil fuels is inevitable. We need to find another energy source, and there is astounding potential to be found within solar energy.”

In just two sentences, Professor Ranjit Koodali laid out the foundation of an issue he has been researching for over 20 years: solar energy conversion.

Solar power boasts unrivaled potential as a sustainable resource. Our professor has been fascinated by its role in photocatalysis – a chemical process of harnessing solar energy for use in either producing fuels or reducing pollutants. After realizing our increasingly industrial world hovers on the verge of an energy crisis, he immersed himself in photocatalytic research here at USD, hoping to uncover a solution.

Inspired by the efficiency of photosynthesis in plants, Koodali and fellow researchers tried duplicating the process for experimentation. The result: an artificial leaf. Born of nature’s inspiration and chemical ingenuity, this material will hopefully convert carbon dioxide into fuels through photocatalysis.

“Mimicking the photosynthetic reaction is very challenging but would give us many benefits, including generation of renewable fuel and a solution to climate change issues,” Koodali said.

The professor and his research team were among the first to report a photocatalytic material capable of both absorbing visible light and separating generating hydrogen and oxygen from water. Though splitting water often requires help from a chemical substance known as a sacrificial reagent and/or application of a small voltage, their material works on its own – a property of immense value to research in the field.

Ongoing experiments are targeting the discovery of efficient and stable photocatalysts by capturing solar energy with natural dyes. These dyes, in conjunction with commonly available and earth abundant inorganic materials, harbor potential for producing hydrogen and/or oxygen from water. Success will take this research team one step closer to finding the elusive clean energy solution.

“Harnessing solar energy for chemical fuels is the Holy Grail of chemistry,” Koodali said, “and that’s what we’re after.”