Hopes for a hydrogen economy fostered on UMKC campus: Dr. Chen shares his research

Morayo Bakare

Imagine a nation without energy pollution—a world with no global warming and fewer wars for foreign oil, where nothing must be burned or excavated to produce electricity. Homes and cars powered cleanly through the use of the lightest gas on the periodic table: hydrogen.

This is Dr. Xiaobo Chen’s goal and dream for the future.

As an assistant professor in the chemistry department, Chen focuses his research on several aspects of his dream hydrogen economy–from nanomaterial synthesis to environmental pollution removal. His funded project is solar-hydrogen generation, where he utilizes titanium dioxide as a catalyst to split water.

A photocatalyst is employed in this energy system as the solar-to-fuel converter, and titanium dioxide is studied for this purpose. The photogenerated electrons and holes in the catalyst cause redox reactions where, when combined with water, cause a reduction by the electrons to form H2 and an oxidation by the holes to form O2, leading to overall water splitting. The hydrogen is then used to generate electricity for power grids and run automobiles.

When asked about the power efficiency of his work, Chen said that, from an ethanol and water mixture, 24 percent can be expected. This is double the ideal proficiency the market has set for hydrogen fuel. Most products and research reach only five percent of pure hydrogen generation.

“This means your beer can make fuel,” Chen said.

Though Chen is not the only professor researching hydrogen generation in the U.S., he is believes his methods are more efficient than others. He states that it is simply a difference in opinion.

“Some professors believe in the short-term use [of hydrogen] while others believe in long-term,” Chen said.

Because Chen is focused on the long-term implications of his work, he adopted titanium dioxide instead of silicon, an expensive, but commonly used material. Chen believes titanium dioxideis better than silicon because it is inexpensive, has low toxicity, can conform to various shapes and colors and can fit into a small device. Another perk for testing this molecule is that it does not corrode as quickly as silicon in water, making its product life very cost effective.

Chen has been conducting research on solar-hydrogen generation since 2001, when he first worked on his Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University. There he studied ways to adjust titanium dioxide’s color, hoping to manipulate its color absorption properties to his advantage. It was during his final years as a student that he stumbled on a paper that expounded on the merits of using hydrogen as a fuel source. Since then Chen has been researching the  element’s uses to free the U.S. from its dependence on coal and oil. Chen has been at UMKC since 2011.

Funding, one of the most important components of a researcher’s career, is not surprisingly difficult to acquire. Chen commented on how government cuts have decreased funding and have made it difficult for him to pursue other interests and integrate newer technologies, such as flow batteries to replace lithium batteries.

Chen managed to attain more external funding for this year, but “there is still not enough to pay graduate and undergraduate students,” he said. Chen said funding for renewable energy projects is more difficult to acquire than other research topics because there is less information available.

“Unlike China and other nations, which are willing fund more projects in the renewable energy sector than they do here,” Chen said.

Despite a lack of funding, Chen gained three more undergraduate students in the last year. The team’s research is not limited to chemistry majors, though the classes they take are very helpful. Pharmaceutical students have also assisted him in the past. Graduate and undergraduate students have the opportunity to attend seminars, but contributing requires a substantial of work.

“To learn what we do, you have to read how we do it,” Chen said.

He encourages reading research papers, as gaining a general knowledge of the hydrogen generation process helps ease students into his research. Overall, Chen has high hopes for the future of his research and the expansion of his ideals into the U.S. energy sector, with the goal of improving lives.

Chen’s articles have recently been published in “Chemical Reviews,” “ChemPlusChem” and “Energy Technology.” To read more about his research and to find his articles, visit his group page at http://c.web.umkc.edu/chenxiaobo/ and click on the Research link.