Energy from floating ceramic nanomats? Yessir

It only looks like aluminum foil: Professor Pelagia Gouma, center, and students display the nano-fibrous material used to produce hydrogen energy. From left: Selda Topcu, Stanley Shaji and Jiahao Huang.

Using ceramic nanomaterials to produce energy is a million-dollar idea, according to the National Science Foundation.

Well, a $935,056 idea, anyway.

That’s the size of the NSF grant just awarded a joint Stony Brook University/Brookhaven National Laboratory effort to produce a commercially viable, nano-manufactured “photocatalytic blanket.”

A photocatalyst is a substance that encourages light-driven chemical reactions without itself being altered, such as chlorophyll in the photosynthesis process. Led by Pelagia Gouma, a professor in the university’s materials science department, the team is seeking to mass-produce ceramic cloths known as “nanomats,” which float on water and, as photocatalytic blankets, use sunlight to release energy produced by what’s known as water splitting.

Water splitting? It’s a chemical reaction through which water is divided into oxygen and hydrogen, a key part of creating hydrogen-based energy.

Scientists already know the photocatalyst process works. The goal here – and “anticipated result,” according to SBU – is a commercially viable nano-manufacturing process that produces functional nano-ceramics in large volumes at low cost.

Gouma’s team combines expertise in materials manufacturing, nanomaterials synthesis, electrochemistry and mechanical engineering. The lead researcher predicts substantial advances in the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen fuel, a potential breakthrough with considerable economic benefits.

“We hope to address fundamental issues that are expected to revolutionize industrial processes for the nano-manufacturing of nanofibrous materials for energy-related applications,” Gouma said in a statement. “We also plan to add to the skilled workforce that will guide the growth of new industries for nanomaterials manufacturing, thus creating more jobs.”

The SBU research team also includes professors Fu-Pen Chiang and Maen Alkhader of the university’s mechanical engineering department and Mingzhao Liu, a BNL staff scientist.