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Department of Chemistry

Image: courtesy of University of Cambridge

Eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. What if we could produce fuel from that plastic waste instead of throwing it away?

Hydrogen is a promising green fuel, but it is currently generated from fossil fuels in an energy-intensive process that releases greenhouse gases. Postgraduate student Taylor Uekert is investigating a process called photoreforming, which aims to address these two issues by taking advantage of two of Earth’s most abundant resources – sunlight and waste – to produce hydrogen. 

Taylor's work was recently featured in a series of articles on the University of Cambridge website entitled Your Way is Your Way, celebrating women in science for International Women's Day 2019.

Taylor's story

I use a photocatalyst, a material that utilizes the energy in sunlight to make a chemical reaction happen faster, to break down waste and water and release pure hydrogen gas. In particular, I am determining what types of waste we can break down and why, and up-scaling the process so that we can generate usable quantities of hydrogen.

Waste reduction and renewable energy generation are two global challenges, ones that I hope my research will someday help to address. I hope my work will provide us with enough fundamental understanding and proof of principle to hand my photoreforming system off to an interested company. It would be great to see this working on a larger scale with real-world waste (biomass, food, plastic, and so on) to produce usable quantities of hydrogen. There's a way to go until we reach that point, but it's certainly my goal for the future of this work. [Find out more about Taylor's research.]

How I got started

I became hooked on nanotechnology during my first year at university. I attended a seminar about this subject – the study and manipulation of materials at the atomic scale for novel applications – and was fascinated. I went on to complete my undergraduate degree in Nano-engineering at the University of California, San Diego. During my four years there, I did a variety of solar energy-based research at the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion, and completed summer internships at Oxford University and ZAE Bayern in Germany. These experiences enhanced my interest in the nano world and inspired me to apply to the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Doctoral Training Centre (NanoDTC) for my PhD. I am now carrying out my PhD research in the Chemistry Department.

From sunshine to rain

When I moved to Cambridge from California I quickly realised I was only disappointed by one thing: the weather. Everything else far exceeded my expectations. Cambridge is an incredibly diverse and international community, which means that you are exposed to an enormous variety of backgrounds and experiences. This is important not only for research, where novel ideas and views are always necessary for innovation, but also on a personal level. I have learned about so many different cultures, and have made friends from more countries than I had thought possible before coming to Cambridge.

I work primarily in the Reisner Lab, where I prepare, test and characterise samples, and analyse the results. Testing typically involves placing the samples in front of a solar simulator (a device with a lamp that mimics the spectrum of sunlight on Earth). Characterisation includes gas chromatography to quantify the amount of hydrogen being produced, and NMR and mass spectrometry for investigating the breakdown of waste. I also use AutoCAD to design larger-scale photoreactors. The NanoDTC is ideal for my research, which is an interdisciplinary mix of chemistry and engineering. I have access to a network of researchers and industry partners in Cambridge and beyond. This makes it easy to work across departments and find the expertise and/or equipment I need to enhance my project.

One valuable moment was when I bought a plastic water bottle from Sainsbury’s, cut it into pieces, and used my photoreforming system to turn it into hydrogen. It is sometimes really easy to get stuck in a ‘lab’ mentality, where you become focused on the small details of your project and forget to look at the wider impact. Seeing this sample work was incredibly rewarding, because it made it clear that, as interesting as my project is for me personally, it could also have a real application towards mitigating waste.

Inspiring and being inspired

One of my most interesting days was during the Cambridge Science Festival. A group from my lab presented our research at the Chemistry Open Day, with solar panels, a fake sun (i.e. a projector), hydrogen-powered cars, and one of my photoreforming samples bubbling away as it produced hydrogen from paper. We talked with hundreds of visitors – kids, families and students – and shared with them some of the ways we are storing solar energy in hydrogen.

This was one of my most exhausting, and rewarding, experiences at Cambridge. There’s a moment when you see a person’s expression change, when they understand precisely what you’re talking about and realise just how awesome the science is. There was the time a young boy said to me; “You can make hydrogen from grass? Wow!” Or the moment when a teenage girl whispered to her mom, “This is so cool! I’d like to work on this.” Communicating science is not easy, but when done right it can have an enormous impact.

Women in science

I encourage other women to take outreach opportunities when they appear. The visibility of women in STEMM is absolutely crucial to showcase the amazing work being done by female scientists, and to inspire other women and girls to pursue STEMM as well. There is still an underlying sense that female scientists are a rare breed, but if we can show that increasing numbers of women are sticking with science and being perfectly successful, there is absolutely no reason for this stereotype to persist.

Science desperately needs more of you; more women who love what they are doing and pursue it despite the obstacles. The truth is, there will be times when you’re the only woman in the room, and there will be times when that is intimidating. But over time, that will change. It is already changing. So continue pursuing what you love, because the vast majority of us scientists are rooting for you.