1/2015

Affordable hydrogen fuel under the California sun

Harri Ali-Löytty

 

Postdoc Harri Ali-Löytty explores artificial photosynthesis in collaboration with scientists involved in JCAP, the largest research programme in the USA dedicated to the development of artificial solar-fuel generation.

The goal is to develop technology for producing hydrogen fuel that is cheaper than petrol and uses only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide as inputs. Ali-Löytty carries out research at Stanford University in sunny California.

 

Harri Ali-Löytty took up a year-long post-doc appointment at Stanford in 2014 to develop artificial solar-fuel generation technology that promises to one day make sustainable hydrogen fuel cheaper than petrol.

”Solar power is the only renewable source of energy that can meet the global energy demand in the future. Solar energy can be stored by converting it to hydrogen or other chemical fuel. Then we can generate electricity even when the sun isn’t shining,” Postdoctoral Researcher Harri Ali-Löytty describes.

Ali-Löytty set off for Stanford University in April 2014 to explore artificial photosynthesis, which has been the subject of intense scientific interest for the last decade. Before returning to TUT, Ali-Löytty will spend a year working at the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) Laboratory, where he studies the production of hydrogen fuel through a process known as photocatalytic water splitting.

The goal is to develop technology for producing sustainable fuel that is cheaper than petrol and uses only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide as inputs.

”The photocatalytic reaction occurring on semiconductor surfaces has been known for 40 years. The challenge is to find a combination of materials that is efficient, cheap and robust, all at the same time.”

Project yields a prototype

Ali-Löytty’s research is conducted under the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), the largest U.S. research programme dedicated to the development of artificial solar-fuel generation technology.

”The five-year programme is now in its final year. The prototype resulting from JCAP is not yet going to be cost competitive with conventional energy production. The project is expected to continue, but the focus will be shifted towards the reduction of carbon dioxide to fuel.”

While at Stanford, Ali-Löytty has established a broad network of professional contacts and his collaboration with JCAP researchers will continue after he returns to Finland.

Research mobility gives a competitive edge

WHO? Postdoctoral Researcher Harri Ali-Löytty, 30 years

  • Works in the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at Tampere University of Technology.
  • Postdoc at Stanford University, California, from April 2014 to April 2015. His position resides within the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) National Accelerator Laboratory, where he develops photocatalytic water splitting technology for generating hydrogen fuel.
  • Graduated with a master’s degree in technology in 2008. Received his doctorate from TUT in 2013.
  • Areas of expertise: Surface analysis by means of synchrotron radiation mediated photoelectron spectroscopy.
  • Hobbies: Orienteering.
  • Family: Wife, 5- and 3-year-old children and a month-old baby.
 

”A research period in a foreign university is an excellent stepping-stone towards an independent research career and provides a competitive advantage in the global academic arena. Research funding is often contingent upon the participation of international collaboration partners. In addition, international research experience is considered an advantage when applying for academic positions,” Ali-Löytty says.

Stanford is known for its fundamental research, but in Silicon Valley it is also common for graduates to launch a start-up company to turn their innovation into a business.

”Stanford attracts leading researchers, and the campus is abuzz with scientific events. As research findings and unanswered questions are openly discussed among faculty members, it’s easy to find potential collaboration partners.”

Increased openness could also benefit the research community in Finland.

Ali-Löytty says that newly graduated PhDs are considered students in U.S universities, whereas in Finland they enjoy expert status. He believes that students who complete a doctoral degree at TUT have above-average qualifications to pursue an academic career.

Worthwhile experience

Ali-Löytty and his family live in Menlo Park a 15-minute bike ride from the Stanford campus. They welcomed their third child into the family during their stay in the USA.

“It’s not so easy to move abroad once you have children, but my wife and I were determined to experience life outside of Finland as a family. Still, we want to settle into Finland before our eldest child starts school.”

“Coming to Stanford was definitely the right decision, and we gave some serious thought about staying here for good. However, the cost of living is high. We might not have been able to come here without financial support from the Foundations’ Post Doc Pool, the research mobility programme ‘Tutkijat maailmalle’, and the Optoelectronics Research Centre at TUT,” Ali-Löytty says.


Text: Leena Koskenlaakso
Photo: Harri Ali-Löytty´s archive

 
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