Dr. Zhang explains sustainable energy options

The future of clean energy lies in hydrogen production.

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Dr. Sen Zhang advocates for hydrogen as an alternative fuel source to combat climate change. Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia Department of Chemistry.

Sen Zhang, Ph.D., visited Muhlenberg on Sept. 16 to host a seminar on his research in the fields of chemistry and sustainability. Zhang is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia and has various publications in studies of carbon dioxide and nanoparticles. He has received several awards including the 2021 Research Excellence Award from the University and the 2022 NSF CAREER Award from the US National Science Foundation. In his presentation, Zhang focused on catalysis as the key to clean energy. This is the addition of a chemical to increase the rate of a reaction, and the use of hydrogen in this process.

“Our current energy supply system in the U.S. is still based on the fossil fuel system,” Zhang explained. “Currently, we have a lot of renewable energy sources like solar, hydro and wind, but it’s hard to store them effectively.”

“It’s not a concern about energy supply, because we have an abundance of energy, but the real problem is the environmental concern.”

Dr. Zhang

His goal was to convert carbon dioxide and hydrogen into a chemical form of energy, however, this process can be costly. Zhang was granted $3.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct his research on this pressing environmental issue. Zhang showed a specific interest in the use of hydrogen in the push for clean energy across the world.

Zhang said, “Hydrogen can directly be used as an energy source as there is no emission of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen will be used to create ammonia, a fertilizer that can be used as energy. The problem is that the largest source of hydrogen is fossil fuels.”

Zhang and his team of student researchers developed a tactic that turns carbon dioxide-producing waste into renewable natural gas energy. He achieved this result by removing impurities and moisture from the waste and using a catalyst to finalize the process.

When asked about his experience working with other collaborators, an essential aspect of the field, Zhang remarked, “[It was a] pretty natural process with little difficulty, but be careful with who you select with your collaborators. I was lucky to be very close to many colleges and universities to conduct research. Not a single group can handle a big challenge without the use of other departments. Every issue has multiple departments working to solve the same problem.”

Zhang shared some advice about aspiring chemists in the sustainability field toward the end of his presentation. He also explained how he climbed the ladder in the industry and is now a partner with Toyota to create fuel cells for their new electric vehicles.

“No matter what background you are from, as long as you have a strong interest in sustainable chemistry, there is a place for you in this field through taking labs and talking to other students and professors. It is never too late to do training for graduates.”

Ashley Kim ‘25, a student attendee of the seminar shared, “I enjoyed his seminar as it related to environmental sustainability and climate change. It was also interesting that he talked about many post-grad options that students had as well as the pros and cons of each opportunity.”

“Dr. Zhang’s lecture gave me new hope toward the future of clean energy.”

Andrew Doubleday ’25

Tori Brady ‘25 reflected on the seminar, explaining, “Something I really enjoy about the chemistry seminars, in general, is how it really expands your knowledge about the variety of research opportunities and different career paths available. The speakers are so passionate about what they are doing and are proud to share it with prospective chemistry students in hopes to encourage their chem[istry] careers. “

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