“Although nanotechnology for efficient and sustainable energy is still in the laboratory stage, it will definitely change the future design and optimization of energy systems."
— Sen Zhang
How can we meet the world’s growing demand for energy while also reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming and climate change?
Nanotechnology might hold the key.
NatureNet Science Fellow Sen Zhang is a chemist exploring the science of nanotechnology to create efficient and sustainable energy sources. It’s a burgeoning field that has the potential to change the energy future of the world, says Zhang.
“Although nanotechnology for efficient and sustainable energy is still in the laboratory stage, it will definitely change the future design and optimization of energy systems,” he explains.
His project will be carried out in conjunction with UPenn researcher Christopher Murray, one of the leading scientists in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology, and under the advise of the Conservancy’s energy expert, Jimmie Powell, and Conservancy chief scientist, Peter Kareiva.
It’s a collaboration that will provide Zhang access to world-class research facilities through UPenn’s lab, as well as a creative environment with top thinkers in the fields of chemistry, energy and environmental sciences.
“I am extremely excited to get a chance to work with so many excellent scientists and conservationists through this program,” says Zhang. “The fellowship is offering something that cannot be provided by other postdoc programs.”
Zhang’s interest in nanotechnology began while studying for his bachelor’s of science degree at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), a national research university in Hefei, Anhui province of China. Zhang then went on to earn his master and Ph.D in chemistry at Brown University. One of his most exciting moments was publishing his first scientific research paper while at Brown.
“At that time, I designed and produced a new kind of nanoparticles and found that it was a highly active and durable catalyst for electro-oxidation and energy conversion of formic acid fuel,” says Zhang proudly.
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating materials normally at the scale of 1-100 nanometers. One nanometer (nm) is a billionth (10-9) of a meter, comparable with the size of tens of atoms. Since nanomaterials are very tiny, they actually have much more surface area than conventional bulky materials — for example, a watermelon cut into two pieces will yield two new surfaces.
Says Zhang, “People calculate that a cube with an edge of 1 centimeter (cm) has a surface area of 6 cm2. When it is separated to 1021 cubes with the edge of 1 nm, the total surface area will be 6000 m2.”
Surface area is important because the chemical reactions in energy conversions mainly occur at the surface of the catalysts.
In current energy conversion technologies (like your car’s internal combustion engine), fossil fuels combust with air to create energy — and this reaction also generates greenhouse or hazardous gases (CO2, NOx, SOx, CH4 etc). In addition, the efficiency of energy conversion from this combustion process is low.
One promising alternative is to develop nanocatalysts to enhance the efficiency of energy conversion through new combustion approaches, such as chemical looping combustion with inherent greenhouse gas separation, and even through non-combustion approaches, such as solar-energy utilization and fuel cells.
Zhang is interested in developing more efficient and more sustainable nanocatalytic systems that use metal oxide and metal nanoparticles for energy applications.
“Energy supply is becoming an increasingly important and urgent issue, and we need to find a way toward more sustainable and environmentally friendly sources,” says Zhang. “Nanotechnology will give us a new path to meet this goal.”