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Professor Tao Xu explores renewable energy and the art of innovation

April 28, 2021
Tao Xu

Tao Xu

Chemistry Professor Tao Xu is one of the many NIU faculty members known for being an innovator. Since joining NIU in 2006, Xu has worked to develop new highly efficient solar cells, discover a new electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into ethanol, and create other novel materials through his lab’s nanotechnology research. His research group has collaborated with Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado as they’ve pursued renewable energy technologies to help mitigate global climate change.

At the next NIU STEM Café on May 12, Professor Xu will discuss the latest research into renewable energy and share information about his lab’s current work. But just as importantly, Xu says one topic of his talk will be the art of innovation itself.

Xu uses terms such as “spinoff technologies” when he describes the ways in which emerging research impacts human lifestyles, and he likes to remind listeners of a surprising fact: “Emerging renewable energy technologies may also jeopardize our environment if no precautious scientific measures are taken prior to their scaled implementation.” In other words, new technologies often have unanticipated effects that require further innovation.

Xu’s research into solar cells has addressed these effects head-on, as his team has worked to contain the toxic lead used in new perovskite solar cells (a potential replacement for traditional silicon-based solar cells) through the application of lead-absorbing films. These films have proven effective at preventing lead leakage even when the cells are damaged and submerged in water.  Along the way, the team has solved other problems, such as replacing expensive gold cathodic electrodes with nickel, which is much cheaper and more abundant.

“I am a strong advocator for innovating our thinking methodology based on daily life details,” Xu says.

In 2020, Xu and his collaborators won a prestigious R&D 100 Award for their discovery of a new electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and low cost. Ethanol is an important ingredient in gasoline as well as in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. The team’s unique synthetic method for electrocatalyst production can also produce a wide range of other organic fuels.

At the May 12 STEM Café, Professor Xu will discuss these projects and other cutting-edge research in renewable energy. He’ll explore the art of innovation and discuss the ways in which cutting edge technologies may have unexpected effects – both positive and negative.

The STEM Café will take place online at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Register at

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are sponsored by NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. For more information, visit or contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or email [email protected].