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Energy at speed

Dr Yi Du
Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials

Exploring and developing novel, artificial materials for clean energy

The demand for energy from natural resources to sustain our industrialised and technology-driven society is putting enormous strain on our planet.

For Dr Yi Du, the energy versus environment problem is one he is aiming to solve by designing and exploring novel, human-made two-dimensional materials for catalysis – the rate and repetition of chemical reaction, generally in energy production – renewable energy generation, and quantum devices.

Dr Du is at the cutting-edge of materials science; part of an international race to produce world-changing wonder materials. The team he leads designs and fabricates artificial materials from atomic scale to large scale.

“We use atoms as ‘lego’ building blocks to construct materials that were not naturally formed of this planet, but if fabricated will possess exotic physical or chemical properties.”

Silicene is one example of this type of novel material. Dr Du was the leader of a team at UOW that was the first in Australia, and one of only a handful in the world, to fabricate this super-strong and ultra-conductive material. Just a single atom thick, silicene’s great promise is related to how electrons can streak across it at speeds close to the speed of light with only minimal energy input required to propel them.

Recently, Dr Du was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to extend his work exploring and tailoring two-dimensional materials by developing new approaches to control their structural and electronic properties at the atomic level for diverse photocatalytic applications, including clean hydrogen energy generation, pollution elimination and carbon sequestration.

With developments in the field moving at a pace that might feel to him akin to light-speed, Dr Du is focused on establishing strong national and international networks that facilitate access to the latest equipment for studying structures at atomic scales or less, as well as strengthening intellectual capital via joint funding proposals, visits for lectures and workshops, and student exchange and co-supervision.

His UOW team are proficient in publishing their work in top-tier journals, assisting their reputation with international peers and laboratories across the world. Though establishing repute drives Dr Du less than pure interest in the potential of his work to make an impact.

“When I was an undergraduate, I learned that photo- and- electrocatalysis possess an almost unique set of properties that allows for an effective direct transfer of light into highly reactive chemical species, however the catalysts that exist on the planet are very limited,” Dr Du says.

“I decided to contribute my efforts in exploring new catalysts, it is my favourite research area, and my motivation comes from the fact that I can foresee my research efforts on photocatalysts will be paid off in real applications.”