Chemical Engineer Daniel Esposito Wins NSF CAREER Award

Daniel Esposito
—Photo credit: Jeffrey Schifman 

Daniel Esposito, assistant professor of chemical engineering, has won a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project, “Tunable Electrocatalysis at Buried Interfaces.” The five-year grant, which is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of junior faculty, will fund Esposito’s research on emerging catalysts to improve the durability, efficiency, and functionality of electrochemical devices that enable interconversion between electricity and chemical fuels. The resulting devices, which include fuel cells and electrolyzers, will be critical to a renewable energy future once abundant, low-cost electricity is available from solar photovoltaic and wind technology.

Esposito’s research group develops solar, catalytic, and electrochemical energy conversion technologies that convert abundant and renewable solar energy into storable “solar fuels” such as hydrogen. By combining core expertise in catalysis, advanced in situ analytical tools, and chemical engineering principles, the group is engineering novel materials and devices that can produce solar fuels more efficiently and cost-effectively than today’s state-of-the-art technology. For instance, in a recent paper, Esposito proposed building a floating solar fuels rig that would use sunlight to convert water, a low-energy molecule, into hydrogen, an easily storable chemical fuel. These solar fuels are very versatile, and can be used for a wide variety of applications across transportation, industrial, residential, and commercial energy sectors.

For his CAREER award, Esposito and his lab will develop new electocatalytic materials that could significantly improve the efficiency and selectivity of complex electrochemical reactions. “The key to improving the performance of these electrocatalysts is in their structure,” he explains. Unlike conventional electrocatalysts, which are typically metal nanoparticles that are partially exposed directly to the reactants, the electrocatalysts he is developing are encapsulated by very thin layers of ceramic oxides such as silicon oxide (i.e., glass). These encapsulating layers are permeable to certain reactant and product molecules, and can be manipulated to control chemical transformations in multiple ways.

Esposito, who joined the School in 2014, is especially focused in exploring how electrochemical reactions occur at the buried interface between the overlayer and metal catalyst because the buried interface may provide unique opportunities to control chemical reaction pathways in ways that are not possible with conventional, unencapsulated electrocatalysts. “It should be possible to engineer oxide-encapsulated electrocatalysts that can achieve significantly higher efficiency and selectivity for complex electrochemical reactions,” he says. “We expect the electrocatalysts we develop through this project to have a major impact on improving the performance and economics of electrolyzers and fuel cells needed in a renewable energy future.”

—by Holly Evarts

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