Shu Hu Wins DoE Early Career Award

For a project that could bring the field closer to sustainable chemical production from sunlight, Prof. Shu Hu has won a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). 

The 5-year, $750,000 grant is part of the DOE’s Early Career Research Program, which supports exceptional scientists during a period in their careers when many do their most formative work in the agency’s priority research areas. The awards are part of DOE’s longstanding efforts to support critical research at the nation’s universities and National Labs.  

Hu, assistant professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering, will use the grant to develop coatings to protect semiconductors, which would otherwise corrode in water, to achieve efficient and durable photocatalysis. Despite decades of study, the rate of solar-to-fuel conversion is still much lower than what researchers hope to achieve. One promising approach is with photocatalysis using particles in water. The immediate boost, however, requires semiconductors that are efficient but tend to quickly corrode when exposed to sunlight. Hu, who is also a member of the Energy Sciences Institute at Yale's West Campus, seeks to get a detailed understanding of how the corrosion happens at the molecular level, and develop coatings to protect the semiconductors. 

“My platform will pave the way to mitigate and repair and regenerate these corrosion defects,” Hu said. “It's the same idea as in nature, where the organisms repair themselves.” 

One thing that’s tricky about the coatings is that it only takes a small defect for the corrosion to quickly damage the entire system. Hu compares it to the Teflon coating of a non-stick frying pan - it works great until there’s a small scratch, and then it deteriorates rapidly. Part of this project will be devising a strategy to identify these defects at their initial stages as a way to mitigate the corrosion. 

“Our goal is to study these processes at the molecular level, in conjunction with developing the approach to identify and repair the corrosion,” he said.

He has already made significant progress in this area by greatly extending the life of photocatalysts.

“The coatings from my lab have been shown to extend the durability to beyond 100 hours, so that's a huge disparity right there,” Hu said. “So to bring it to the next stage of 10,000 hours under five years and then hundreds of thousands of hours - that would be very exciting for this field.”