Tyndall PhD student ‘Stephen Rhatigan’ is the winner of this year’s School of Chemistry (UCC) postgraduate prize.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable, carbon neutral energy systems is a global challenge. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar are intermittent; the wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. Because of this, there is a mismatch between peak supply and peak demand which necessitates an efficient means of energy storage so that the energy may be used where and as needed. The conversion of solar energy to chemical energy (stored in the bonds of fuels) via photocatalysis has the potential to meet global demands for clean electricity and fuel.
Photocatalysts are materials which absorb solar energy and redirect that energy to drive chemical reactions. For example, photocatalysis can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas and the development of highly efficient photocatalyst materials will help drive the hydrogen economy. Other applications of photocatalysis include air and water purification, and self-cleaning building materials.
Stephen’s research addresses this global challenge: “For my PhD project I used computer simulations to model new photocatalyst materials. These simulations run on supercomputers in Ireland and Europe. Using our computer models we can identify the key features of an efficient photocatalyst and in this way design and tailor new materials. Our aim is to combine cheap, abundant and non-toxic materials to produce efficient, stable and economically viable photocatalysts. The work is part of a larger European collaboration with experimental groups in Spain and the Netherlands where our theoretical modelling will be complemented by state-of-the-art production and testing at both lab and plant scales.”
Stephen’s supervisor, Dr. Michael Nolan highlights the important implications of this research – “the discovery of materials based on non-precious metals for production of chemicals and fuels from CO2 or water using solar energy is a significant challenge. Materials simulations are well suited to meeting this challenge and Stephen's work has shown how such simulations can be used to predict new materials and their ability to promote the first steps in converting CO2 or water to useful chemicals. Stephen's research has provided key insights for our experimental collaborators to produce and test these materials”.