Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2014
Materials for Solar Water Splitting: Advancing Undergraduate Research and Controlling Chemistry and Charge Transport at Interfaces
Boettcher is working to come up with new and better methods for using sunlight to split water molecules and yield the simplest chemical fuel – hydrogen (H2). It could be used to power a fuel cell, burned like natural gas, or, when combined with the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, yield methanol, the simplest alcohol. Methanol can be further transformed into biodiesel fuel through additional chemical reactions.
“The development of inexpensive and scalable materials systems that directly convert sunlight into an energy-dense chemical fuel would enable the storage, and hence utilization, of solar energy on a massive scale,” he points out.
Boettcher is attempting to synthesize and study uniquely modified versions of common semiconductor materials such as gallium arsenide and silicon to create thin films that produce electric current. Basically, he hopes to marry these light-absorbing semiconductors with other compounds that catalyze electrochemical reactions (splitting water molecules) to create an artificial energy system that loosely mimics the photosynthesis of plants.
To achieve full success, any new materials Boettcher and his team develop will have to be cheap and durable.
The Cottrell Scholar Award will also help fund Boettcher’s goals as a chemistry teacher. He hopes to create teams of freshman and sophomore students to address important research questions, and to capitalize on their real-world experience in outreach efforts to interest local high-school students in pursuing science studies.
“The goal is to change the culture of undergraduate research at the UO from an activity that students might do as junior or seniors, to a core part of the undergraduate science experience that permeates the way all students approach coursework, develop their aspirations, and prepare for careers,” he said. “This is a significant and ambitious undertaking. The Cottrell award will provide the initial spark to begin this transformation.”