Macaluso receives NSF grant to create new synthetic materials for energy applications
A chemist at The University of Texas at Arlington is working to create new synthetic materials which can improve on inorganic metal oxidesin order to use them in a variety of energy-saving applications.
Robin Macaluso, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, recently received a two-year, $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research to fund the research. She is principal investigator of the project, titled “New Oxysulfide Perovskites for Photocatalytic and Photovoltaic Applications.”
The goal of the study is to develop new materials which can make a positive impact in solar energy technology and ultimately to help address society’s ever-increasing need for reliable sources of alternative energy.
The project will focus on establishing a method to create synthetic versions of a class of materials called sulfide and oxysulfide perovskites. Perovskites are a class of materials that share a unique crystalline structure and chemical formula. Sulfide and oxysulfide perovskite materials are expected to be semiconductors, which are used to transport the electric charge created when light hits the material. A sulfide is an inorganic anion (atom with a negative charge) of sulfur, and an oxysulfide is a compound containing both oxygen and sulfur.
Oxide perovskites are the most well-known and common perovskites. They have been known since the 1800s. They are stable and are generally composed of highly abundant elements; however, they are not typically semiconductors, Macaluso said. The primary challenge is to control semiconducting behavior while maintaining the stability and use of abundant, non-toxic elements.
“This project is interesting because we’re trying to combine oxygen and sulfur with the metal, and making new materials called metal oxysulfides,” Macaluso said. “The syntheses of sulfide and oxysulfide perovskites are not well known or understood. One major limitation of some conventional perovskites is that they cannot efficiently absorb and store solar energy. The motivation for synthesizing sulfide and oxysulfide perovskitesis to establish stable inorganic materials with improved efficiency.
“Many metal sulfides are great semiconductors on paper. They have many physical properties that are very attractive as semiconductors. But once they’re exposed to water, they break down. Metal oxides are very stable, so we’re trying to combine the best of both worlds by making metal oxysulfides. Hopefully we can use these to make new semiconducting materials that are stable so we can utilize them in more applications or make them so they can be exposed to more humidity, or warmer or colder temperatures.”
Mixing anions such as oxygen and sulfur is a relatively new but emerging area of research, Macaluso said. Some challenges presented by this type of work are that scientists do not have a set protocol for how to make these materials, and there are relatively very few mixed anion materials.
“The advantage here is to try to make new semiconducting materials that are also stable,” she said. “So, if we use these materials in energy applications, they have to be able to withstand all of these environmental factors like rain, humidity, and oxygen. By combining these elements together and making these mixed anion semiconductors, we can have semiconductors to support energy technology and also have it in a stable manner.
“We want to discover some new materials and we want to establish some protocols for making these mixed anion materials. There’s really not an established way or procedure. Scientists don’t really know the chemistry behind what’s going on and how we can make these materials.
“Our short-term goal in this project is to establish some of those synthetic protocols, to find out what works in synthesis and what doesn’t. In the long run we want to try to move more toward actually building a device.”
Fred MacDonnell, professor and chair of the UTA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said Macaluso’s new NSF grant is a ringing endorsement of the work she and her students are doing and that her new project has the potential to provide substantial improvements in the semiconductor field.
“One of the challenges we face as scientists is finding ways to make energy sources more efficient and cost-effective,” MacDonnell said. “The research Dr. Macaluso and her students conduct in this project could bring about much-improved stability and energy storage capability in the compounds with which they’re working.”
Macaluso’s research laboratory focuses on solid state chemistry. Much of the work she and her students do is in making new materials in the solid state and also in characterizing those new structures. Much of her past work involved making magnetic materials, but her more recent research is focused on semiconducting materials.
“We’ve discovered a need to combine semiconducting behavior with stability, and this is one way we can contribute, by synthesizing and characterizing the structure of these new oxysulfide materials,” she said.
Macaluso also was recently named project coordinator of the chemistry division of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Her duties include monitoring the progress and budgets of all chemistry division projects and working with division leadership to create new project ideas to meet rapidly changing societal needs.
“It is an honor to serve the international chemistry community that values collaboration, scientific excellence, and diversity and inclusion,” she said of her role in IUPAC.
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