Jack Weber is currently an undergraduate student studying Chemistry & Chemical Biology. He is an intern at the Rutgers Energy Institute for the summer of 2016, working with Professor Charles Dismukes research group.
1: Please briefly describe your research. With the detrimental effects of fossil fuel consumption becoming more and more evident, the scientific community is hard pressed to come up with economically viable sources of alternative energy. Most renewable sources of energy are intermittent, and so must be paired with a suitable energy storage device in order to keep the grid stable.
One such energy storage technology is the hydrogen fuel cell, and its reverse, the electrolyser. The electrolyser uses electricity to split water, generating hydrogen and oxygen gas, while the fuel cell recombines the two, generating electricity and water. The major bottleneck by far in these reactions are the two oxygen half reactions: the Oxygen Reduction Reaction, or ORR (fuel cell), and the Oxygen Evolution Reaction, or OER (electrolysis). Both of these are limited by the extensive kinetics of the four step processes, which can be mitigated by catalysts.
My research has focused on cheap, abundant transition metal oxide electrocatalysts for the OER and ORR, in particular the spinel-type Co3O4 and its derivatives.
2: How did you come to be involved in this research? I have always been interested in learning as much about the sciences as possible in order to help create innovative solutions to global problems. As a first year, I joined the Dismukes lab here because I decided that the problem that was most urgent, universal, and close to my heart was that of climate change and the ever-growing demand for affordable energy.
3: Where do you see your research fitting into our energy future? Although there can be no one solution to the growing energy crisis, hydrogen does have a promising future. While lithium ion batteries have a higher volumetric energy density, hydrogen has a much higher mass energy density and can be used more like a conventional fuel (i.e. for transportation). It is also a carbon neutral fuel (when produced via electrolysis) that only relies on water, the most abundant compound in the universe. Cheaper, more efficient catalysts for the OER and ORR will help make hydrogen more economically competitive and sustainable.