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A Sunny Outlook For Energy

Published: June 5, 2017

A new face in chemistry and biochemistry is working on technologies that, if successful, will contribute to improving humanity’s chances for survival by utilizing the energy of the sun in a sustainable energy cycle.

Hadi Tavassol, who joined the university last fall, believes 21st century America must find energy resources outside fossil fuels.

“I’m in favor of using any renewable and clean source of energy,” he said. “Sunlight and wind are very attractive forms of energy and we need to find ways to maximize their usage in our energy sector.

“There is abundant energy in sunlight and wind,” he added. “However both of these resources are intermittent in nature There is no energy during nighttime and/or when wind is not blowing. We need to store the extra energy when available, but lack of storage technologies is one of the main challenges in utilizing more renewables like sunlight and wind into the electric grid.”

But what is holding back storage and ultimately a sustainable energy cycle? The question of “What are we waiting for in terms of storage technologies and using more renewables?” has different answers depending on the sector and the scale of the energy storage, according to Tavassol.

“For road transportation, Li-ion batteries are the most promising choice for a possibly (depending on the source of energy) clean and sustainable cycle,” he said. “There, the problem is the high cost and low capacity of batteries which means that a car that has a high milage range (like the ones made by Tesla) are very expensive while more economical alternatives (Nissan Leaf) have a very limited milage range. So technology advances in increasing the capacity and reducing the cost are required. Storage of larger scales of energy proves to be even more difficult in terms of energy in amounts enough for powering homes, factories and cities. Currently, we do not really have good options there.”

As an electrochemist, Tavassol believes one of the best ways to store large amounts of energy is in a chemical fuel such as hydrogen. Energy can be stored in a hydrogen-hydrogen bond by splitting water molecules to H2 and O2, he noted, but splitting water to H2 and O2 and consequently recovering the energy from H2 involve challenging electrochemical reactions.

“There are materials challenges,” he said, “and carefully designed devices are required to perform these reactions in an efficient way.”

Tavassol further explains the electrochemical water splitting which can be done by placing two electrodes in water and applying a voltage enough to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

But oxygen and hydrogen evolution reactions are slow and need catalysts to improve the rate and effectiveness of these reactions

“The materials’ challenge is really finding good and economically feasible catalysts for these reactions,” he said. “At around room temperature, platinum, a rare and precious metal, is the best catalyst for the hydrogen evolution reaction. Large-scale use of rare and precious metals is not feasible. Oxygen evolution reaction turns out to be even trickier. For that, the search for a good catalyst continues. The best at this point are ruthenium oxide and iridium oxide, but they are also rare metals and expensive.

Hadi Tavassol
Hadi Tavassol

“A breakthrough in facilitating cheap storage of a large amount of energy in chemical fuels is required,” he added. “Non-precious abundant alternative catalysts are required here. This is a chemistry and materials science challenge that we need to address. Our group works on such problems.”

As the human species, we need to stop endangering organized life on this planet, Tavassol said, adding that the effects of our energy habits on the planet are showing up faster than predicted.

“The consequences are very severe,” he said. “The International Agency for Climate Change issues report after report indicating we are doing worse than all the predictions. This has to do with the way we consume energy and the resulting CO2 emissions, and we need to dramatically change our energy habits.”

Tavassol received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran. He then received a master’s in chemistry from Northern Illinois University and his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Champaign in 2014, followed by a postdoc at Caltech.

Tavassol believes that CSULB is a good place for his research due to resources available to him and his laboratory.

“Thanks to the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, financial donors and the university, we have what we need to conduct our research,” he said, “but our main assets are our students. We have a very good student body here.”

The best way to advance sustainability is to educate the public, Tavassol argues, and he feels he can do that at CSULB.

“I feel that by raising awareness about these issues, there will be more serious discussion on changes to our energy portfolio that will ultimately leave a better Earth for our grandchildren,” he said.