Chemistry’s Tao Xu receives CAREER grant worth $400K from National Science Foundation

Tao Xu
Tao Xu

NIU professor Tao Xu, who has developed a promising nanoscience research program in solar energy conversion, is now getting a big boost from the National Science Foundation.

NSF awarded the chemistry and biochemistry professor with a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant of $400,000 to support his research and teaching efforts.

CAREER awards support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

Xu’s grant dollars will come over the next five years.

“This award is a tribute to the quality and productivity of Dr. Xu and his research group,” said Jon Carnahan, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “We’re very proud of Tao’s accomplishment.”

Xu also is affiliated with NIU’s Institute for Nano Science, Engineering, and Technology. His research group is working to develop potential solar cells of the future.

“Because of environmental concerns related to nuclear and fossil-fuel-based energy, people are demanding clean alternative energies that can help build up our power grids,” Xu said. “Solar cells are quite safe, but we need to enhance their overall efficiency and affordability. To accomplish this, our group is trying to gain a better understanding of the fundamental processes at work in solar cells.”

InSET logoThe trick is to create cells that are good at both trapping light and generating electricity.

Thick solar cells have properties that are beneficial for capturing light but are inefficient for extraction of electricity and cost more for materials. Thin cells use fewer materials and efficiently generate electricity but are less effective at catching light. Through a nanotechnology process of folding material within the cell, Xu is hoping to create thin cells that are also excellent light catchers.

Xu’s group also is developing novel, environmentally friendly materials that use sunlight as an energy source to burn away organic pollutants from wastewater. The scientists have published a number of journal articles on the topic. Xu hopes the technique could be used for purification of sewage or even oil-contaminated water.

“The CAREER award is a big encouragement for my entire research group, which includes graduate students, undergraduates and research scholars who have been working so hard and intelligently on this project in the past years,” Xu said.

With the new funding, Xu hopes to expand his ongoing research collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory to include more NIU students.

“Energy science is Argonne’s core research area, and I see broadening the collaboration as an effective way to train the next generation of scientists,” Xu said. “NIU students will be exposed to Argonne’s world-class research environment and involved in frontline research projects at a young age. They will also benefit from exposure to scientific teamwork, cutting-edge facilities, cross-disciplinary knowledge and critical-thinking and problem-solving methodologies.”

Xu is the second faculty member in the chemistry and biochemistry department to win a CAREER award from NSF in recent years. Professor James Horn was awarded the grant in 2010 for his research on proteins.

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