Fueling the future: Zhang challenges climate change with Air Force grant
Climate change isn’t just a buzz-worthy topic. Making renewable energy more readily available and cost-efficient is this generation’s biggest task yet. Yingjie Zhang’s certainly up to the challenge as the recipient of a three-year, $425,000 Congressional Interest Item grant funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
“The Air Force relies on a lot on energy and fuels for anything they do, like satellites or airplanes,” said Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
A renewable and efficient way to produce fuels is via electrochemical reactions, which converts electrical energy to chemical fuels. Zhang's research aims to convert CO2 in ionic liquid via electrocatalytic reactions at metal surfaces, which both reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and produce valuable fuels.
Zhang is the single principal investigator in the U.S. Air Force research effort, where he hopes to work alongside MatSE at Illinois graduate students to develop new methods to better examine electrochemical techniques for fuel production.
His biggest obstacle? The fundamental science of it all.
“There’s a gap in our existing understanding of the actual chemistry of electrochemical interfaces, the key region for energy conversion and fuel production,” Zhang said. “Our existing ways to understand them is mostly based on classical, continuum concepts. We don’t know what’s going on if we zoom into the very small nano and atomic scale, where things become discrete and where quantum chemical interactions emerge. So it’s a large, hidden space that we don’t know much about.”
Zhang will get to the heart of these structures and build a better wealth of knowledge using new characterization tools based on scanning probe microscopy and vibrational spectroscopy. In turn, he hopes this leaves a long-lasting impact on The Grainger College of Engineering in becoming leaders in materials characterization techniques.
“This is unique for our campus,” Zhang said. “We can really have this in-situ technique to characterize the interfacial structure between the liquid electrolyte and the solid electrode at the atomic scale, which is really hard to do.”
“Most of the existing techniques, the ones commercially available or the ones other groups use, mostly can only characterize solid structures,” he added. “So when we immerse the solid in liquid, it’s going to be hard to characterize their interfaces. And that’s why our characterization technique is unique.”