Synthesis and Characterization of Novel Photocatalysts for Solar Water Splitting and Carbon Dioxide Reduction to Fuels

2012-13 New Investigator Award

Improved utilization of solar energy, and in particular development of novel conversion schemes for producing solar fuels, are key challenges to address the energy needs of the U.S. and the world. The necessary advances and discoveries of new materials and processes that will drive this development will be aided by increased fundamental understanding of photocatalysis and the active sites responsible for this chemistry.

This project, headed by Bruce Koel, involves basic research studies of surface reaction mechanisms associated with solar water splitting and carbon dioxide reduction to fuels using photoelectrocatalysts. The objectives are to establish structure-activity relationships for these materials and validate recent theoretical studies by E. A. Carter’s group at Princeton University in which predictions are made of possible new photocatalysts for solar water splitting using visible light. The method is to synthesize and characterize well-defined surfaces of these novel materials, and test their performance for photocatalysis. Four thrusts are planned: i) Co-doped hematite (α-Fe2O3); ii) MnO-ZnO alloys; iii) Li2O-NiO alloys and Li-doped Cu2O; and iv) FeO-based transition metal oxides NiO-FeO and FeO-ZnO, with and without doping. Several different fabrication methods are being utilized, both physical vapor deposition (PVD) via sputter deposition and wet chemical synthesis of nanoparticles. The photoelectrocatalytic (PEC) performance of these materials is tested in a specially designed and fabricated PEC cell. The produced photocatalysts are also characterized using surface spectroscopies and imaging techniques, including scanning electron microscopy (SEM), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS). This research involves extensive participation of undergraduates.

Bruce Koel working on an ultrahigh vacuum (UHV) system that is equipped with several surface analytical probes that can be used to synthesize and investigate the composition and structure of photocatalysts. Photo credit: Catherine Zandonella, Princeton University

Educational Impacts

A new Photocatalysis module consisting of three one-hour lectures has been developed for use in undergraduate and graduate courses. This module is being debuted this term in a new graduate course, CBE-526 “Surface Science: Processes and Probes”, which was developed by Koel and taught for the first time in Fall 2011. This course, offered every two years, has an enrollment this term of 7 undergraduates and 8 graduate students from five departments.  In addition, Koel is periodically teaching the undergraduate course CBE-421 “Catalytic Chemistry”, and this course will also be modified to incorporate a substantial photocatalysis content.



Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering


Research Associates

Graduate Students

  • Peng Zhao
  • Clark Chen
  • Barry Irick

Undergraduate Students