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Amanda Morris and Jie Zhu in lab

Amanda Morris and Jie Zhu in lab

Amanda Morris’ lab pushes sustainable energy breakthroughs by mimicking how plants energize

In her lab at Davidson Hall, Amanda Morris and her student researchers are trying to mimic the ways plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide to storable food. Their aim is to create a chemical spark via photosynthetic cells that can create and store energy. Green, sustainable energy.

“I want to take sunlight and convert carbon dioxide into something useful,” Morris said. “What plants do, I want to try to do in a beaker. Carbon dioxide is one of the largest waste products of the energy industry and our newly reported catalysts have the potential to convert this waste stream into a commercially-viable feedstock. Additionally, it addresses the environmental concerns of carbon dioxide emissions.”

Morris and her students are making strides to do just that as they build new metal organic frameworks capable of the conversion of carbon dioxide to use­ful chemical feedstocks. The framework is actually a three-dimensional, crystalline powder that can oxidize water and use the electrons produced to reduce carbon dioxide to methane or higher order alcohols. The new material even has been named "VPI-100" in honor of Virginia Tech.

Work in the field has challenged scientists who cannot predict framework stability at high temperatures and in different solutions. However, work by Morris, chemistry doctoral student Jie Zhu, and chemistry undergraduate researcher Ann Marie May bring the field one step closer to meeting this challenge. 

Ann Marie May

Ann Marie May in lab
Ann Marie May is an undergraduate researcher in Amanda Morris' inorganic and energy chemistry lab at Davidson Hall.

“The coolest part of this project is that this could be a pioneering work in this type of framework that may lead to more exciting dis­coveries,” said Zhu, who graduated in May and is now a post-doctoral scholar at the Universi­ty of California San Diego. "For the next step ... this material can be used with other mate­rials (such as a hydrogel) to work as a hybrid multi-functional system for flow chemistry, which is widely used in industry.”

Last year, Morris renewed a three-year U.S. Department of Energy grant she received in 2014 for this work. The renewal came in at $540,000, on top of the original $450,000. The work de­scribed here was published in the Journal of American Chemical Society, the premier journal for the chemistry field, in December.

The material not only has clear implications for the energy sector, there’s a potential medical use as well, including the treatment of high blood pressure and biomedical imaging.

If the future of the crystalline pow­der is multi-prong, the futures of the students in Morris’ lab are limitless. “Since starting my research, I have found that no feeling can equate to sit­ting at a lab bench and working on new, innovative technologies,” said May, a junior from Newport News, Virginia. “Research has given me the opportuni­ty to put theory into practice, while also expressing my creativity through prob­lem solving. Now, I have a better per­spective of my future, including gradu­ate school and career aspirations.” 

Read more about the research.