Like many people in the world today, Chern-Hooi Lim would like to do something to stop global warming.
The 26-year-old graduate student is an avid cyclist and a strong supporter of the eGo CarShare program in Boulder. Perhaps even more promising is his decision to pursue a PhD research program focusing on alternative fuels.
Lim is working with Professor Charles Musgrave of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering to address the energy issue through computational chemistry, a branch of chemistry that uses supercomputers to resolve mechanistic details of chemical reactions. Specifically, they are trying to design artificial catalysts to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbon fuel using net input of photon energy from sunlight—a process referred to as “artificial photosynthesis.”
“If we can use a waste material like CO2 and turn it into a high-value molecule like hydrocarbon fuel, it has the potential to make a powerful impact on everyone’s life,” Lim says. “It would both reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce CO2 emissions.”
But the problem is a challenging one, as CO2 is a highly stable molecule that has serious thermodynamics and kinetics implications, Lim says.
Lim was drawn to enroll at CU-Boulder because of Musgrave’s work on computational chemistry and catalysis for energy conversion and storage. “Not many schools in the U.S. are doing computational chemistry, and yet it’s a powerful tool,” Lim says. “Our role is to come in as theorists and, understanding the chemistry, to help predict which catalysts will be most effective.”
Their primary laboratory tool is the Janus supercomputer located in CU-Boulder’s Research Park. The supercomputer can perform calculations that help screen catalysts many times faster than when researchers began looking at the possibility of CO2 conversion some 30 years ago.
“The calculations we can do now are incredible in terms of getting the accuracy and confidence we need to accelerate discovery,” he says.
While speed, accuracy and endurance seem to be the keys to working on artificial photosynthesis, they are also the keys to Lim’s other passion: badminton.
Originally from Malaysia where badminton is a popular national sport, Lim has enjoyed playing badminton since he was a child. The sport helps him to keep a balance between work and fitness, and he is currently one of the top players in Colorado as well as the head of the Badminton Club at CU.
“To me, it’s a highly technical sport,” Lim says. “The birdie can go up to 200 miles per hour, so you need the stamina of a sprinter, and the endurance of a marathon runner. In an extreme case, players can exchange as many as four shots in one second.”
Lim is not one to shy away from a challenge of any kind. He first came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student when he was 17, and he lived with a host family in the Philadelphia area while attending high school. “I didn’t speak much English then, and the experience made me a totally different person because I learned to do a lot of things on my own,” Lim recalls.
He went onto attend Drexel University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering as part of a co-op program that also gave him 1 ½ years of industrial experience at a chemical company before he started graduate school.
After earning his PhD, he would like to go on to teach at a university and keeping working on the energy challenge. “This was something I thought about in high school,” says Lim. “It would change the global energy landscape if we can figure it out.”