Young chemist bound for Cambridge to study renewable energy

23 October 2013

Jane Leung, an Honours student at the University of Auckland’s School of Chemical Sciences, is bound for the United Kingdom next year to begin her PhD as one of three 2014 Woolf Fisher Scholars at Cambridge.

Her research there, based in Dr Erwin Reisner’s laboratory in the Department of Chemistry, will examine photoelectrochemical cells, devices that use solar power to produce hydrogen as a clean, renewable energy source that may one day replace fossil fuels, for instance in vehicles.

Jane explains that the challenge facing chemists is to use solar energy to generate the chemical reaction that splits water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen, so that the hydrogen can be drawn off as fuel.

The nanoscale characteristics of the material used to capture the solar energy are critical. The material must be capable of being “excited” by the sun to generate the reaction, before switching back to its original state to repeat the process renewably. Should a material prove successful in the laboratory, the next challenge will be incorporating it into a fully-functional device and scaling it up for economically viable industrial production.

Jane is interested in materials research, and will be examining semiconductors and catalysts that may be used in such photoelectrochemical cells.

“One of the reasons I’m drawn to this field is that it’s a fledgling area. There aren’t many experts anywhere in the world, and no-one has laid down the fundamental groundwork yet,” she says. “It’s a new and exciting area that could go in lots of different directions.”

Jane is currently completing her honours research project in polymer chemistry, supervised by Professor David Williams and Associate Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic.

She has been examining the properties of smart “switchable” surfaces, whose wettability by water can be changed with an electrical stimulus and have applications such as sensors and microfluidics. She is working on electrically conducting polymers, the first examples of which were discovered in the 1970s by New Zealander Alan MacDiarmid, who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the work.

Jane says that she hopes to return to New Zealand in the future, and that the country has great potential in energy research.

“I think that New Zealand has a lot to offer in our approach to research. We have a ‘can-do’ attitude that I don’t think is matched anywhere else in the world, and it’s seen us have a lot of success, particularly in biotechnology and agriculture.”

“If you channelled that mind-set then I don’t see why we can’t be world leaders in energy research as well. New Zealand is also a really good place to test hydrogen fuel technology, because of our small size and shorter travelling distances.”

The Woolf Fisher Scholarships, valued at $100,000 per year, are amongst the most valuable awards of their kind in New Zealand. They cover students’ fees for up to four years, and include a living stipend and annual return airfare to New Zealand.

The scholarships, which are awarded to three scholars annually to pursue doctorate studies at Cambridge, recognise “outstanding academic ability and other qualities such as integrity, leadership, boldness of vision, exceptional zeal, keenness and capacity for work."

Jane will travel to the United Kingdom to begin her PhD late next year. In the meantime, she hopes to build on her university background by gaining experience in an industrial research setting, either in New Zealand or abroad.