Peter J. Nordlander

Principal Investigator
Rice University

Theoretical chemist Peter Nordlander is interested in photocatalysis, exploring how to use light to steer and enhance chemical reactions. His ultimate goal is to improve sustainability by replacing today’s chemical catalysts, and their related environmental impacts and energy needs, with light.

As an example, he explains that making ammonia production, which involved splitting nitrogen atoms, consumes two to three percent of total global energy use. “We are getting closer – although not yet close – to using sunlight to power that reaction instead,” he says.

His research looks at using metallic or bimetallic nanoparticles to induce the optical properties necessary for such reactions to occur, a process called plasmon-enhanced photocatalysis. One area of his research looks to mimic the photosynthetic process by which plants use sunlight to split CO2 into carbohydrates (for food) and oxygen. “Nature is already pretty efficient, but we’d like to scale this up and make the process even more efficient,” Dr. Nordlander says.

He also is exploring nanoparticles as catalysts to separate hydrogen from water using light. The ultimate goal will be to create an efficient, clean fuel to power cars and other vehicles, generating water as a byproduct rather than the more polluting emissions from today’s gasoline- and diesel-fueled engines.