Sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, are the frontrunners in the race to secure clean energy for the future, but they are not perfect. If we want to transition to sustainable energy sources and maintain our current energy infrastructure, we have to find a way to convert the energy from the sun and wind into fuels. One solution is to transform sustainable electricity into what are called solar fuels. That’s the challenge that PhD student Qin Ong and her colleagues have taken on. Qin is a third-year doctoral student at the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER), a leader in solar fuel and fusion energy research.
There are a few ways to produce solar fuels, but the approach Qin and her colleagues have taken is to use sustainable electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines to split CO2 into CO. This CO can then be used to produce fuel sources such as hydrocarbons or other energy-dense molecules. Qin works on the fundamental science behind the CO2 conversion process. In order to use and break CO2, you need to know how CO2 decomposition works. Fortunately, Qin is a chemist by training. As vibrating CO2 molecules collide, they transfer (vibrational) energy to the other molecules. The molecules that gain this energy “climb” what’s called the vibrational ladder. Once the molecules have climbed sufficiently high, the CO2 will vibrate more intensely and break into CO and O. Qin’s experiments are designed to test the CO2 vibrational ladder climbing model. She uses a laser to put low energy into CO2 molecules, then allows them to collide to see if they will climb the vibrational ladder, split, and form CO. Although additional experiments have to be done, Qin has already found an indirect proof which indicates that the vibrational ladder climbing mechanism is working.
This type of work, like most DIFFER projects, is very interdisciplinary. It draws on Qin’s training in chemistry, while also allowing her to expand her knowledge and skill set into other fields. “The practical work and the laser, that’s more physics and a bit of engineering as well because I have to design and set up the experiments,” she explains. “This project is all in one: engineering, physics, and chemistry.” It was an opportunity that Qin didn’t want to miss. She remembers being excited when she first saw this PhD project and knowing right away that she wanted to apply. DIFFER and the project both matched Qin’s goals. “I wanted to do something meaningful in the sense that I wanted to contribute to society. I think working on energy storage is a good way to use my knowledge and make a difference in the world,” she says.
Just as she wants her research to contribute to the world, Qin also wants to contribute to DIFFER. She’s a member of the institute’s Works Council, which represents the employees to the management. Getting involved in the decision-making process has helped her understand what’s going on at the institute. “Usually when you’re a PhD student you’re really focused on your own project, but life is more than research. You have to have a broader view. Being part of the Works Council has been a good way to learn more about organizational aspects of research institutes like DIFFER and to improve my personal and professional skills,” says Qin.
Back in the lab, the next step for Qin is to continue testing the vibrational ladder climbing model with more experiments in collaboration with other universities and a free-electron laser facility. She’s also involved in another project that could make the solar fuel production process even more efficient by using catalysts and hydrogen to bond with the oxygen left over from splitting CO2 into CO to create water. Thanks to the work of Qin at DIFFER and other researchers like her, we can hope to meet the worldwide demand for sustainable energy.Continue reading