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Innovating Solutions to Energy, Sustainability, and Climate Challenges

Nature inspires us with how it utilizes energy: lightning strikes (plasmas) cause nitrogen and water to combine to form nitrogen fertilizers. Earth’s magnetic field protects its surface from harmful solar winds via the Lorentz effect. In biology, cells use high-energy bonds between phosphate groups (e.g., in ATP) as their energy currency. Our group explores plasma (air gap)-electrochemistry, magneto-electrochemistry, and zero-carbon polymers as three innovations for a lower carbon future.

Project Areas

1.    The Chemical Origin of Life
What are the early steps in the chemical origin of life on Earth, prior to the existence of complex organic molecules and biology? Could Earth have relied on fallen meteorites carrying alien species, or could lightning storms have turned an inorganic Earth and its inert atmosphere into chemically reactive building blocks for early life to emerge, survive, and evolve? Our group tests the “zip zap Frankenstein” scenario, experimentally simulating lightning strikes under a prebiotic Earth-like environment on the bench top. We explore reaction pathways uniquely enabled by plasma- and radical- chemistry, as well as the role of reactive interfaces (e.g., aerosols, nanostructured solvents, particle suspensions, and mineral surfaces) in electrochemical synthesis.

2.    Electrifying the Chemical Industry for a Zero-Carbon Future

Inert molecules, such as CO₂ and N₂, have high bond energies (5.5eV for C=O and 9.8eV for N≡N). Therefore, industrial processes such as Sabatier reaction for CO₂ reduction (400°C, 30atm, Ni catalyst) and Haber-Bosch process for N₂ fixation (450°C, 200atm, Fe catalyst) both require energy-intensive reaction conditions and expensive infrastructure. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer produced by the Haber-Bosch process provides food security for half of the global population (4 billion people) today. However, this industrial process accounts for 1.4% of global CO₂ emissions, 1-2% of the world’s total energy consumption, and nearly 40% of world’s hydrogen fuels every year. Using a combination of radical chemistry, plasma (air gap)-electrochemistry, magneto-electrochemistry, catalysis, and reactive interfaces, our group designs green and scalable methods to electrify the chemical industry.

3.    Developing Ionic Transmission Technologies via Magneto-Electrochemistry

Lorentz force plays a crucial role in various applications ranging from electronic devices and motors, sensors, imaging to biomedical applications. Studies of magnetohydrodynamics (e.g., in plasma systems) led to the 1970 Nobel prize. However, the electric force has long believed to be non-exist in magneto-hydrodynamic systems, as well as in “bulk” electrolytes, distance away from electrode surfaces. Our recent findings show that both magnetic and electric forces control ionic motion. The quantification of Lorentz forces in solution-based electrochemical systems enables precise control of ionic transport (e.g., in batteries) and ion signaling (e.g., in biology). We aim to utilize Lorentz effects to drive chemical separations, develop ionic motors, improve the performance (and yields) of electrochemical systems, fabricate chiral materials, and enable technologies based on ionic transmission, complementary to today’s electronic technologies.

4.    Chemical and Materials Science Solutions to Climate Change

The climate challenge has two important components, one is the depleting ozone layer in the stratosphere and the other is the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the troposphere. Ozone depletion has consequences of increasing rate of human skin cancer, crop damage, and shortened lifetime of manufactured materials. In addition to human activities, volcanic eruptions can result in ozone depletion until 2070 or beyond. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and halogenated gases, are the minority gases (<500ppm). Such low concentration levels make their removal difficult. Based on our knowledge in plasmas (for selective radical electrochemistry) combined with magnetism (for ionic separations), we develop scalable methods of selective separation (e.g., based on chemical reactivities) and extraction (e.g., based on solubilities and intermolecular interactions) of reactive gaseous species. 

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