On the road to more efficient energy sources

There are lots of reasons why hydrogen is a perfect fuel. More important—and this is where UO materials chemist Shannon Boettcher comes in—there are some major reasons why it’s not.

Confronting the obstacles that stand in the way of more efficient energy is what Boettcher and his research team do, and finding a better way of making hydrogen is just one of the group’s more monumental hurdles.

An Oregon native who grew up in Creswell and attended the UO as an undergraduate, Boettcher returned to Eugene after completing his graduate work at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He saw great opportunity at the UO—both for his young family and for his career in materials chemistry.

“There’s tremendous activity here in materials chemistry and physics,” says Boettcher, who received a prestigious DuPont Young Professor award shortly after joining the UO chemistry department. “We’re gaining national recognition and on a path for continued growth.”

Boettcher’s diverse research group includes chemists, physicists and engineers—currently three postdoctoral students, nine PhD students, and a number of undergraduate interns— who share a passion for overcoming the fundamental challenges of solar power, hydrogen, and other alternative energy sources. From Boettcher’s lab on the fourth floor of the new Lewis Integrative Science Building, his group tackles fundamental energy research supported by the Basic Energy Sciences arm of the U.S. Department of Energy; collaborates with members of the UO and OSU faculty in the National Science Foundation–supported Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry; works with faculty members at UC Santa Barbara and OSU on a project (funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy) to develop faster-charging battery alternatives for transportation; and leads an effort with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop new deposition technologies for semiconductors used in high- efficiency solar photovoltaic and water- splitting cells funded by the Department of Energy SunShot program.

The difficulty of making hydrogen demonstrates the kinds of research challenges Boettcher and his group face. Conventionally, the fuel is made by reforming coal or natural gas, which, he explains, doesn’t solve any problems. The result is more CO2 than burning coal or natural gas would have produced in the first place.

Boettcher’s lab is seeking a means of creating hydrogen fuel using sunlight and water—a carbon-free, closed-loop cycle in which hydrogen atoms are pulled off of water molecules, then recombined with oxygen after burning to create water as the end result.

“In principle, this could be less expensive and more scalable than solar energy is right now—it would give you a chemical fuel that could be stored and burned just like natural gas,” Boettcher says. “A lot of the projects in our group are focused on the various facets of this problem.”

In one project, Boettcher’s team is examining the use of solar cell–like devices that use ultra-thin nickel and iron oxide films as catalysts in the process of creating hydrogen. In another, the team is seeking a better understanding of the interface charge-transfer processes that are fundamental to devices that split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

To help test all these ideas, the group also develops simple theory and computer models. These simulations help predict effectiveness, but Boettcher remains mindful of the fact that they will have to demonstrate more than just potential before the ideas can emerge from the lab.

“There is a tendency for some researchers to make a lot of claims about how what they’re doing will have a big impact,” Boettcher says. “But if you don’t actually go talk to the people in industry who are building and selling and maintaining the real-world devices, then you don’t really know what the true challenges are.”

An advocate of so-called use-inspired basic research, Boettcher seeks frequent input from private industry.

“The better informed you are about what things have a real impact, the better you can make use of the constrained resource base we have for research,” Boettcher says. “And the better case you can make to the public and to the funding agencies that your research is important.”