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  Nano Energy Solutions  
 
Nanotechnology's interdisciplinary nature is well-suited to the discovery of nano energy solutions. Areas of interest include the development of new catalysis agents, innovative fuel cells, and highly efficient solar energy conversion.

Catalysts are often nanoparticles composed of clusters of atoms with particle size varying between 1-50 nm. There are two types of nanocluster catalysts that carry out chemical reactions with high rates and selectivity. Enzymes are nature’s catalysts, and many are composed of inorganic ions surrounded by high molecular weight proteins that form a structure at the nanoscale. Synthetic catalysts, either heterogeneous or homogeneous, are often metal or metal oxide nanoclusters used in chemical technologies to facilitate reactions.

Institute researchers hope to build nanomaterials that exhibit enzyme-like 100% selectivity under very mild conditions. The activity and selectivity of catalyst nanoparticles is strongly dependent on their size, shape, surface structure, as well as on their surroundings (supports and ligands). Characterizing these properties may enable researchers to achieve “catalysis by design” – that is, develop synthetic catalysts that mimic natural enzyme catalysis. The resulting catalysts would have high selectivity for the desired product. This would eliminate byproducts and waste, while reducing energy and process requirements for separation and purification.

The development of efficient fuel cell technology could provide an alternative to fossil fuels. Institute researchers are currently focused on conventional ceramic cells, known as solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), that convert hydrocarbons to hydrogen inside the cells. Development of SOFCs with membranes that have nano-sized pores could open the door to fuel cells capable of operating with greater efficiency and running on hydrocarbon based fuels (i.e. methane, natural gas). Researchers also seek to determine the optimal structures and operating conditions for such cells.

Renewable energy resources are also being explored via solar cell development. Institute researchers are using nanotechnology in efforts to design cost-effective materials to convert solar energy more efficiently than the silicon used today. For example, research is being carried out to better understand 1) the hierarchical organization of molecules into nanostructured assemblies and materials; 2) the energetics and dynamics of the interaction of light and charge with integrated solar energy conversion systems; 3) the interfaces at which charge generation, separation, transport, and catalytic fuel formation occur; and 4) the properties of unique materials, from transparent conductors and nanostructured thermoelectrics to self-assembling, bio-inspired materials for the photoconversion of solar energy into fuels.