Scientia Professor Rose Amal calls her planned system for sustainable fuel production “deliberately ambitious”.
Using only energy from the sun, she aims to split water to liberate its hydrogen and then to hydrogenate carbon dioxide in a second reaction to create a new generation of commercially viable, renewable fuels.
To develop fuels that are based on environmentally neutral H2O and sunlight, and at the same time recycle increasingly problematic CO2 from our atmosphere, would be an incredible achievement. It would mean two of our most critical global issues would be addressed simultaneously – energy security and human-induced climate change.
“In the 1970s we started to put a lot of resources into developing solar cells to transform energy from the sun into electricity. That’s the process we’re all familiar with as roof-top solar panels and arrays,” Amal says. “Now, as chemical engineers, we are looking at harnessing solar energy, not to convert into electricity, but for chemical reactions to create new fuels.
“This would overcome the current limitations of solar power, because fuels can be stored and used when needed, not just when the sun is shining.”
It’s an elegantly simple plan, but to convert and store this chemical energy will require extraordinary creativity, innovation and breakthrough knowledge.
Currently, sourcing hydrogen from water uses much more energy than is created. The reduction of carbon dioxide is also an ‘uphill’ reaction, meaning a great deal of energy is needed to pull apart the strong bonds that bind carbon and oxygen together as a stable gas.
But Amal – a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering – has a highly original idea at the interface of science and engineering, and is using her recently announced Laureate Fellowship grant to demonstrate its feasibility.
As the leader of UNSW’s Particle and Catalysis Group, Amal is a globally recognised pioneer and authority in the fields of particle technology, photocatalysis and functional nanomaterials. Named in the top 100 most influential engineers by Engineers Australia, she is perhaps best known for her work on the ‘self-cleaning bathroom’ – creating highly specialised ‘nano’ surfaces that trap light from the sun, enabling air and water to be purified.
Boosting the energy conversion efficiency in photocatalysis will be essential to creating the new generation of sustainable fuels, Amal believes.
“Thousands of papers on new photocatalyst developments have been published. However, the research has been fragmented and the improvement in the overall energy conversion efficiency has been marginal,” she says.
“We require a system-wide approach, which means understanding the basic science, developing new materials, and engineering the right hybrid system to deliver practical, real-world applications.”
Amal admits it is still early days. Nevertheless, she is encouraged by the interest in her work. “If successful, we would have an almost ideal outcome in terms of sustainable energy and clean environment.
“And we would reinforce Australia’s position as a major player in the global renewable energy market.”