Accelerating discoveries in materials science

Imagine if pure sunshine could provide enough energy to drive the chemical products industry and, in the process, completely eradicate the need for fossil fuel generated power. Well, we might not need to imagine it for too much longer if Dr Priyank Kumar from the School of Chemical Engineering has his way.

One of the key things I can offer my colleagues is my expertise in computational research. Since many UNSW research centres work on experiments, my skills can complement and support the experimental research activities going on.

Dr Priyank Kumar, Scientia Fellow, UNSW Chemical Engineering

Although still in a relatively early stage of his career, Kumar has enjoyed a meteoric rise through academia so far. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, before moving to MIT in the U.S. to do his PhD on computational and experimental design for two-dimensional materials.

It was during his post-doctoral research at ETH Zurich in Switzerland that he began focusing on a new research area called plasmonic photocatalysis, developing and applying computational methods for various processes in this application.

“Simply put, plasmonic photocatalysis is how we can use sunlight to carry out chemical reactions for environmental and energy applications such as wastewater treatment, water splitting and carbon dioxide reduction,” Kumar explains.

Rapidly increasing global interest in this new field, coupled with Kumar’s position on the cutting edge of it, provided the perfect gateway to a UNSW Scientia Fellowship and he moved to Australia to start his own research group at UNSW Chemical Engineering in mid-2019.

While plasmonic photocatalysis is now internationally recognised for its potential to utilise sunlight for chemical reactions, there are two main issues holding it back. Efficiency is currently very poor, at less than 1%, and product selectivity (i.e. tuning a particular chemical reaction to a particular product) is poorly understood.

“My work uses computational methods, primarily density functional theory and time-dependent density functional theory, to better understand these two problematic facets. These are methods that, at least to the best of my knowledge, very few groups are developing and applying to this particular research field currently,” Kumar continues.

Another key objective for Kumar is to form research collaborations with other groups at UNSW working in the broad area of catalysis, as well as exploring a topic called two-dimensional materials that researchers are interested in for both catalysis and creating filtration membranes and organic pollutant-removal membranes for water treatments.

“The Particles and Catalysis (PartCat) Laboratory is a world class research centre in Chemical Engineering, and I’m exploring opportunities with Scientia Professor Rose Amal who heads up PartCat, as well as Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh in the Centre for Advanced Solid and Liquid based Electronics and Optics (CASLEO),” he says.

Outside chemical engineering he has his sights set on collaborating with Dr Rakesh Joshi in Materials Science, who is working on graphene and graphene oxide-based membranes for water filtration processes, and other colleagues at the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering and the Department of Physics.

“One of the key things I can offer my colleagues is my expertise in computational research. Since many UNSW research centres work on experiments, my skills can complement and support the experimental research activities going on,” he explains.

“For example, if they are working on a research topic, and they want to really understand what’s going on mechanistically, that’s one part of how I can help them,” he says. “The second relates to designing and accelerating discoveries. While it is not possible to go into a lab and synthesise thousands of materials, you can do that kind of accelerated discovery on a computer.”

Kumar says that, ultimately, the societal problems his research is looking to solve include the global energy problem and the world-wide provision of access to clean water.

“If you look at the chemical industry right now, there are a lot of reactors that perform chemical reactions, but their energy source is mainly fossil fuel derived power. I want to change this picture to one where chemical reactors are working, not on fossil fuels, but using sunlight as their main source of energy. This brings renewable energy into the picture and mitigates climate change at the same time,” he says.

“The other problem is access to clean water. We need water filtration systems that can be used with seawater, for example, so we must develop cheaper and more efficient membranes.”

With the four years of his fellowship ahead of him, Kumar is not wasting any time establishing himself on campus and says he is looking forward to reaching out to industry and passing his knowledge on to students too.

“I really like the concept of working with industry, convincing them that we are working on ideas with big potential and getting funding for the research. Teaching is another important aspect; I love using the knowledge I’m gaining from my research to educate the next generation of researchers.”

More information
If you are interested in speaking with Priyank Kumar about your project and how he might be able to help, please contact priyank.kumar@unsw.edu.au

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