What if you could take an environmentally harmful greenhouse gas and transform it into clean, affordable energy?
It’s a challenge within reach, says Utah State University chemist Yi Rao, who is developing laser techniques to advance photoelectrical chemical reduction of carbon dioxide for energy production.
Rao recently received a boost to ramp up his research and educational outreach. The assistant professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is the recipient of a 2021 Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Rao’s award provides a five-year grant of more than $650,000.
“We’re excited Yi has received this highly competitive and well-deserved recognition,” says USU College of Science Interim Dean Michelle Baker. “He’s pursuing knowledge critical to advancing sustainable energy production, while creating meaningful learning opportunities for his students.”
Access to life-sustaining energy and water is a concern for all, particularly in light of recent delivery failures in Texas and other areas stricken by colder-than-normal conditions. Even in the fairest weather, providing sustainable electricity and fuels for transportation, along with commercial, industrial and residential power, is a critical economic driver.
Achieving conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2), which accounts of more than 80 percent of all U.S. greenhouse emissions from human activities, takes Rao to the molecular level of the heat-trapping gas. The chemist and his research team are developing interface-selective spectroscopic tools, using time-resolved electronic sum frequency generation (TR-ESFG) and time-resolved vibrational sum frequency generation (TR-VSFG) techniques, that allow the scientists to explore conversion of CO2 into fuels at photoelectrode-electrolyte interfaces.
“These are ultra-thin interfaces – a few molecules wide – where two bulk phases such as a solid and liquid meet,” says Rao, who joined USU in 2017. “My project focuses on ultrafast interfacial charge transfer and chemical reactivity at these boundaries, where light-activated reactions can occur and a liquid can conduct electricity.”
Participation in this research creates cornerstone learning opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students in using laser-based spectroscopic tools and gaining knowledge of solar-generated energy, Rao says. In addition, the CAREER award provides funding for Rao to develop STEM outreach tools and opportunities for K-12 students.
“I’m facilitating photon fuels workshops for elementary and secondary students, along with activities USU students can share at Science Unwrapped events and other community gatherings,” says Rao, who serves as faculty advisor for the USU Chem Club. “I’m grateful for this opportunity, which allows my students to gain valuable experience in cutting-edge laser technology, electrochemistry and materials science, while broadening their public outreach experiences.”
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