Sloan Fellowships Will Advance Research in Clean Energy and Quantum Physics
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has named University of Virginia chemist Huiyuan Zhu and physicist Peter Schauss as Sloan Research Fellows for 2023. An assistant professor with the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Zhu is a leader in the search for clean energy technology and the third member of the College’s Department of Chemistry to be named a Sloan Research Fellow in the last three years, and Schauss’s pioneering work with quantum gas microscopes has been widely credited with advancing the techniques used to study and manipulate atomic realms in ultra-cold quantum gases.
Zhu and Schauss are two of 125 scientists selected to receive a 2023 Sloan Research Fellowship. One of the most prestigious awards available to young U.S. and Canadian researchers, these two-year, $75,000 fellowships are awarded annually to early-career researchers identified for distinguished records of performance and their potential to make substantial contributions in their fields.
The Chemistry of Clean Energy
As head of the College’s Nano Energy and Environmental Catalysis Lab, Huiyuan Zhu is focused on the science behind the production and use of clean energy and on environmental remediation. In the U.S. today, the energy and chemical industries are based primarily on the use of fossil fuels that need to be converted to usable forms, a process that produces greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment. With her team of researchers, Zhu is working to develop solutions that make chemical and fuel production more environmentally friendly and more affordable using renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
“Everything we do is related to developing new catalytic processes for fuel and chemical production powered by clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar that are available to us today,” Zhu said.
The technology necessary to convert sunlight into electricity has developed rapidly, but inefficiencies in the storage and distribution of that power and the cost of generating it have remained a significant problem, making solar energy impractical on a large scale.
One way to harness solar energy is by using solar electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen produced by the process is stored as fuel, in a form that can be transferred from one place to another and used to generate power upon demand. To split water molecules into their component parts, a catalyst is necessary, but the catalytic materials currently used in the process, also known as the oxygen evolution reaction, are not efficient enough to make the process practical.
"If you use the appropriate catalyst, we can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen,” Zhu said. “The hydrogen can be used as a fuel source, and in this process, there is no CO2 emission at all."
Another significant drawback of an energy infrastructure based on petrochemicals is that it produces approximately 925 metric tons of carbon dioxide or more than two million pounds per year.
"Currently, the hydrogen industry relies on the steam reforming of methane or natural gas, and in that process, you have methane reacting with water, which produces hydrogen, but at the same time, it generates a tremendous amount of CO2."
Her research in developing new chemical pathways for producing green hydrogen could transform the energy industry in as little as 5-10 years.
Zhu is also focused on the industrial production of ammonia, an important ingredient in the fertilizers that are used to produce food for the world's growing population. The process also involves natural gas steam reforming which generates as much as 2-3 tons of CO2 per ton of ammonia produced.
Overfertilization of crops in the agriculture industry leads to the runoff of ammonia, the primary source of nitrate pollution in our groundwater, and Zhu's group is looking for chemical solutions to reclaim ammonia from contaminated water so it can be used again for fertilizer production.
Her work in reclaiming ammonia from nitrates has also won Zhu one of the National Science Foundation’s coveted CAREER awards, which recognize the country’s most promising junior faculty members in the sciences and engineering. The award will provide additional funding for Zhu’s lab and will support educational and outreach efforts designed to encourage an interest in the STEM fields and in the science of sustainability in K-12 students.
One of the Department of Chemistry’s newest faculty members, Zhu came to Grounds late in 2022 specifically to work with faculty members associate chemistry professor Sen Zhang, who won a Sloan Fellowship in 2022; chemistry professor T. Brent Gunnoe; and associate professor of chemistry Charles Machan whose work in the area of green hydrogen was recently recognized with a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to support research into clean energy technologies that will serve as part of the scientific foundation of President Biden’s goal of creating a net-zero emissions economy by the year 2050.
Zhu’s receipt of the Sloan is further evidence of the importance of UVA’s green hydrogen research efforts.
“Our faculty are at the forefront of chemical research, and awards such as the Sloan Fellows demonstrate the elite level of research happening in the chemistry department and the College of Arts & Sciences,” said Jill Venton, chair of the College’s Department of Chemistry. “We recruited professor Zhu last year because of her leading research in nanomaterials and she has instantly become a key part of the energy and catalysis initiatives, including the Grand Challenge in Environmental Resilience and Sustainability and an Energy Earthshots grant from the Department of Energy.”
Exploring the Quantum Universe
From his time as a graduate student in Germany, Peter Schauss has pioneered the use of quantum gas microscopes to detect individual atoms by observing photons emitted by atoms trapped in standing-wave light potentials, or so-called optical lattices. Now in his fifth year as an assistant professor of physics at UVA, Schauss is internationally recognized for his work with ultra-cold quantum gases and in quantum many-body physics, the study of the behavior of ensembles of interacting quantum particles.
“Being named a Sloan Fellow is an incredible honor. It opens the door to so many possibilities,” said Schauss, who maintains his lab for ultracold quantum matter research in the College’s Physical and Life Sciences Research Building.
As a graduate student at the Max-Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Schauss was involved in a series of pathbreaking experiments with the Bose-Hubbard model, which is used to describe physical systems consisting of many bosonic atoms in an optical lattice. Later, as a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University, he worked on several high-impact studies of microscopic Hubbard model physics with ultracold fermionic atoms.
Schauss’s work has been credited with pioneering the development and use of quantum gas microscopy techniques for finely controlled study and exquisite manipulation of many-body physics in ultra-cold quantum gases, said Despina Louca, UVA’s Maxine S. and Jesse W. Beams Professor of Physics and chair of the College’s Department of Physics.
“Peter is extremely talented,” Louca said. “He and his small group designed and built a new quantum gas microscope and were the first in the world to demonstrate site-resolved imaging of ultracold fermionic atoms trapped in a triangular optical lattice. The Department of Physics is very proud of his accomplishments and is very happy to have someone of his caliber here.”
The development of quantum gas microscopes has enabled Schauss and other researchers to explore a broader range of physics. The single-site and single-atom resolved imaging of these systems enables a unique view on strongly correlated condensed-matter-like systems, offering insights into atomic realms that cannot be calculated on traditional computers. His lab relies on techniques of laser-cooling and atom trapping that bring atoms into the quantum regime at a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. By loading ultracold atoms into optical lattices, Schauss and his team can achieve defect-free structures that more aptly portray how electrons organize and form patterns on a lattice.
“We can actually see how these atoms organize in the lattice explicitly,” Schauss said. “You can see every single atom, and what we can also do, as electrons have a spin and can spin up or down atoms, we can also simulate that by having ‘up-’ and ‘down-spin’ atoms. You can see that they form patterns, and in a square lattice they tend to form a checkerboard order, where up- and down-spin are staggered.”
With additional funding, Schauss hopes to launch new experiments that rely on quantum computing. Quantum computers consist of quantum bits, or “qubits” that play a similar role to the bits in digital computers. A single atom can act as a qubit, and an ensemble of qubits can encode exponentially more information than bits. By manipulating the qubits, scientists aim to develop quantum computers that produce solutions to difficult problems faster than even the largest supercomputers.
“That will require us to attract additional funding, but the recognition of a Sloan Research Fellowship will help our chances there,” Schauss said.