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ASU researcher focuses energy on future of science

In Q&A, professor Gary F. Moore discusses his work, which includes study of what plants can teach us about solar energy storage

Woma and man in science lab

February 07, 2017

ASU researcher Gary F. Moore focuses on the future of science — and he hopes that we as a society do, as well.

Moore, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, studies what plants can teach us about solar energy storage, which currently is too expensive to use on a mass scale.

He has recently picked up a $660,000 National Science Foundation grant, and he aims to expand his work with students from underrepresented communities by bringing more Native American students in to work in his synthetic chemistry lab.

Moore says research is driven by interest and public policy, and that whatever we collectively decide to fund will drive what we develop.

Here, he shares his views on global energy demands, solar advances and what he teaches the next generation of scientists:

Question: Can you explain your research for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Answer: We’re looking at the chemistry that naturally occurs in our world. For example, these office plants, they’re actually buzzing with electricity. They're harnessing solar energy and storing it so that it can be used when the sun is not available. Solar energy can also be stored in batteries, although batteries posses significantly less power densities compared with fuels. This, in part, is why fuels are essential to modern transport systems.

By mimicking the process of photosynthesis, we can develop new energy sources and industrial processes to produce clean fuels as well as other commodity products.

Some of the research we’ve been doing is capturing conversion technologies with semiconductor materials, but then coupling that with chemical transformations that could turn water into hydrogen, and then that hydrogen would serve as a fuel source when the sun is not available.

Q: Sounds like a much cleaner energy source than coal or other fossil fuels.

A: Yes, that’s the idea.

As you’re generating and using the fuel, you’re not releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. … We’re trying to change what’s happening in the atmosphere.

Q: What is the work you’re doing on solar panels?

A: We’re taking advantage of the semiconductor work in photovoltaics A method for generating electric power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun into a flow of electrons.where they have the ability to harness sunlight and convert it to electricity. But the sun, like most renewables, is not always available; the sun sets and the wind ceases to blow.

When that’s not available, you can’t tap into that energy infrastructure. For large-scale deployment, that requires a storage solution. How can you store that energy when the sun’s not available? That’s the niche of our applications.

You could say that we’re developing a new way of storing energy that uses existing solar panel technologies with the ability to couple that with fuel production.

Just making electricity is not enough for large-scale deployment for global consumption.

If you want to transition our current fossil fuel infrastructure on a massive global scale, it’s hard to imagine doing that with just electrical generation, just solar panels alone creating electricity.

We rely heavily on fuels for our energy infrastructure. That becomes an important piece in addition to electricity.

The things we’re working on in our labs and in other labs across the globe are addressing that.

Q: Solar power has been in the social consciousness since President Jimmy Carter put panels up on the White House. What’s preventing solar energy from being consumed on a large scale?

A: There’s three main concerns: efficiencies, which gets a lot of attention. The other two are the cost of materials and the longevity of the materials — how long can they last?

In principle, the things we’re working on in the lab you can do with existing technologies. It’s possible to buy a photovoltaic material and other items, but the barrier for those going to market in part is cost.

However, materials used in those technologies include elements that are deep in the periodic table and thus rare, such as iridium and platinum. When things are rare they’re not able to be deployed on large scales, and their cost can be impacted by that as well.

Plants, like most biological organisms, make use of elements that are high in the periodic table and abundant. We are trying to find out through biomimicry how nature has carried out this chemistry and can we learn some aspects of that to carry into technologies that would be beneficial.

But that’s just the science part. It’s also going to take policy and economics. So all three of those things — science, policy and economics — are required to help make a big breakthrough.

Q: How far away do you think we are from that breakthrough?

A: Depends on what we decide to do with science policy. What aspects we tend to fund as a society and nation, planet, will accelerate those processes. But we live in a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen on a day-to-day basis.

What’s really difficult is that some of this knowledge goes away, and there’s retraining of scientists after that knowledge has been lost for a 20- to 30-year period.

The 1970s was a time when there was interest in renewable energy, and these ideas have been around for quite some time, but they fall out of the cycle because of funding and this knowledge gets lost.

For example, there was a time when we had a significant amount of electrochemists, and we’ve had to go back as a community and relearn a lot of that knowledge that was lost between these funding cycles in this area of solar research.

As soon as you start to make some traction, sometimes the political direction can sway the direction of these emerging technologies.

Q: How much of our energy do we get from solar now?

A: It’s a small fraction of our current energy structure. It’s mostly driven off of coal, oil and gas. But there’s so much more potential.

As a planet, we will double our energy consumption by 2050. Even if we stay at our consumption level of coal, oil or gas, how are we going to match that other doubling in energy demand?

If we continue to do that, the climate change scenarios look pretty grim.

That’s what we need to be thinking about. How are we going to fill in this new need as we move forward in time, and how will we do it cleanly?

Q: You're teaching the next generation of solar researchers. What is the main thing you want to convey?

A: Graduate students and PhD students have to contribute an original piece of knowledge to science as part of their research projects. To achieve this, a researcher has to have a good handle on how to build things, a knowledge of how to obtain the required data and experience in interpreting that data in a way that’s scientifically rigorous and not based on opinions and feelings, or what they want the result to be.

That can be challenging.

Then I also interact with undergraduate students, who are just being exposed to concepts in organic chemistry or chemistry, in general.

That’s a really fun time to be able to get young people excited about science. And even if they’re not going to go on to become scientists, having an appreciation of science is an important aspect we should all have as voters and participants in society.

Having a well-informed public will help drive major decisions about science policy because lately, people are questioning science.

There was a time when science and scientists had more public acclaim. When we put a human on the moon, scientists were heroes.

Unfortunately, we’re moving into an era where that’s not the case anymore.

Science is now questioned. It doesn’t have the high standard in public view that it used to, and I think that’s something that we should win back as scientists.

Top photo: Graduate student Anna M. Beiler (left), and Gary F. Moore (right), an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, who works with students to develop efficient, economical and stable solar energy technologies in the labs in ISTB V. He recently received a five-year, $660,000 NSF grant to explore biology-inspired technologies for solar fuel production. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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