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UofL Research Turning Water and Sunlight into Fuel Awarded
Kentucky Ag Connection - 02/12/2020

University of Louisville researcher Joshua Spurgeon has earned a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to study the production of hydrogen fuels from water and sunlight.

The NSF CAREER Award supports promising early-career faculty who are potential role models in research and education. The award is $500,000 spread over five years, and Spurgeon is one of only a handful of non-faculty recipients.

"I'm thrilled," said Spurgeon, theme leader for solar fuels at UofL Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research. "These grants are so competitive, and this is huge for me."

Spurgeon's work at UofL centers on hydrogen fuels, which he can make with just water and sunlight. With this award, he hopes to lower the cost of that method to make solar hydrogen more competitive with hydrogen derived from fossil fuels.

"We're targeting the intersection between high-efficiency and low-cost," he said. "The goal is to make clean, green, renewable fuel accessible."

The basic idea is to separate water, or H2O, into hydrogen and oxygen using photocatalysts, which cause chemical reactions when exposed to sunlight. Spurgeon places the photocatalyst in the water, shines sunlight on it, and boom -- potent, energy-dense hydrogen fuel.

The problem, he said, is that this method is currently more expensive than fossil fuels because it relies on a combination of expensive commercial photovoltaic and electrolysis equipment. Spurgeon's CAREER Award research will seek to lower the cost by integrating all of those components into a single semiconductor particle, making the whole process more cost-effective.

"This would enable low-cost solar energy storage and sustainable fuel production," said Mahendra Sunkara, director of the UofL Conn Center. "Such a technology could revolutionize the energy industry and greatly expand the energy independence of the United States."

You can check out some of Spurgeon's technologies here and here.

In addition to the research component, Spurgeon also will use his award to help build and develop a new master's degree at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering focused on renewable energy and materials. He also plans to help underrepresented undergraduate students secure research internships and help final-year graduate students with their entrepreneurial and commercialization efforts.

"Dr. Spurgeon is pursuing truly ground-breaking work that can broadly impact fields as diverse as transportation and utilities," said Robert S. Keynton, Interim Executive Vice President for Research and Innovation. "We're very proud of his accomplishment and his contributions to research and innovation at UofL."

Including Spurgeon's, UofL researchers have received 21 total NSF CAREER Awards totaling some $7.1 million.


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