Statement of Grant Purpose
Lukas Morgan – Australia
Finding Alternative Energy Sources with Chemical Engineering
Currently, we are depleting the planet of natural resources at an unprecedented and unsustainable rate. We are using resources 50% faster than the earth can restore itself. We have started to move towards renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, but the drawback with these sources is the times when we can utilize the energy produced. When the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, little to no energy is being produced, so these methods are inefficient. Unless we can find a way to store the energy produced when solar panels and wind turbines are being used, it will be difficult for the world economy to transition to a reliance on clean energy.
Energy carriers are necessary to store the unused energy produced from renewable sources. The only energy carrier that is “readily synthesized without limitations,” is hydrogen. Using hydrogen to store energy holds promise for the future. In the combustion reaction of hydrogen, the only byproduct is pure water, so there are no pollutants or deadly, carcinogenic gases. Although, another problem arises. There is currently no effective way to store hydrogen. At the University of New South Wales, a small research team is developing innovative and effective methods for the storage of hydrogen. The group is led by Dr. Francois Aguey-Zinsou; the professor I will be directly involved with during my research. Dr. Aguey-Zinsou and his team are highly experienced in the field of chemical engineering. Dr. Aguey-Zinsou completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Queensland in bio-electrochemistry, and he has supervised other research projects on hydrogen storage, biofuel cells, and biomaterials.
The use of hydrogen as energy is cyclic and efficient. When energy is harvested from the sun or wind, the electricity generated is used in a water electrolysis reaction to separate the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atoms. The hydrogen atoms are then stored (our missing link) either to be exported, or to be used in fuel cells and generators. The combustion reactions that take place in these generators use the excess oxygen from the initial reaction, and the hydrogen stored, to create energy. The combustion of hydrogen with oxygen produces energy and pure water. The energy, obviously is used for domestic consumption, and then the water produced, is used in the initial water electrolysis reaction, completing the cycle.
In order to power a car for 400 kilometers (250 miles) with this energy, a 5 meter (16 feet) in diameter balloon is needed to store the hydrogen equivalent of this energy which is not practical nor is it efficient. The purpose of this research is to find or develop a minuscule material that can store larger amounts of hydrogen. Hydrogen gas a low density, and therefore takes up a lot of space. This project is attempting to compact the hydrogen atoms, ideally on the nanoscale, allowing for the practical use of hydrogen as an energy form.
The group has already found that metals and compounds such as magnesium and sodium borohydride can effectively store large amounts of hydrogen. These materials absorb hydrogen atoms like a sponge absorbs water, holding up to 10% of their own weight, but they still have disadvantages. In order to absorb the hydrogen, they must be subject to extreme pressures, above 300 atmospheres. Conversely, to release the hydrogen, borohydrides must be put under high temperatures. Over the last 15 years, the group has been able to bring down the required temperature of release to around 100 °C and to a lower temperature to allow for a practical storage of the hydrogen. However, the goals of the group are to decrease the temperature and pressure requirements even further, and decrease the size of the hydrogen storage “vessel.”
In order to prepare for a research position of this caliber, I have completed three co-ops in the field of chemical engineering, at Northeastern University, to give me a deep understanding of techniques and strategies in a lab setting. Specifically, my second co-op was with AMBRI, a start-up out of MIT specializing in liquid metal batteries in order to store large amounts of electricity. On this co-op, I worked as a Seals Engineer, designing a high temperature sealing solution for commercially deployed cells. Although this position is different from the research I am proposing, the setting in the lab is similar in tactics, goals, research purposes.
If awarded the Fulbright, I would travel to the Australia and engage in this research, starting in February of 2018 and ending in November of the same year. As part of the team, I plan to assist them in achieving their goals. Since the team is comprised of multi-background researchers, I am not sure specifically what aspect of the project I will take on as a part of the whole, but my goal will align with theirs: attempting to decrease the size and mass of the storage material, while increasing the amount of hydrogen the material can store. Aside from this research project, while in Australia, I propose to engage in outreach with local schools and higher education, and possibly companies; any age range would be appropriate because we all must know the benefits of clean energy. Although Australia is a relatively low contributor to the world’s carbon emissions, they strongly support coal mining and natural gas. This outreach would help to explain to people the necessity for cleaner energy sources, and help them understand that we as a society are consuming our resources at an alarming and unsafe rate.
The project is already well-established but not on a commercial stage so there will most likely be no problem with politics or cultural opposition. The government is similar to the US in structure, with a Parliament and an Executive branch. In order to follow through with the Fulbright goals, I intend to travel to Australia with the intent of learning of the country’s rich aborigine history and culture. Although, the university is near Sydney and not at the heart of the continent, where a large portion of Australian natives reside, I would like to travel deeper into the land and learn more about the culture.
If I am awarded this Fulbright Award, I will not only expand my knowledge of energy sources, but I will become more aware of some of the present cultures in the world. I am ready to explore a part of the world I have never been to, and excited to meet and understand people with a different point of view. For this project, I will bring my experiences with Chemical Engineering to the table, and my proposed colleagues and I will merge our understandings of this increasingly vital topic. The search for a renewable and sustainable energy source cannot be dealt with by only one country; which is why we must all come together in order to save our planet.