Researcher looking at how to use solar energy to produce fuels

February 28, 2014 •

Assistant Professor Gordana Dukovic is all for using sunlight and solar panels to produce electricity that can power homes and buildings.

But what she really wants to do is to better understand how to use sunlight to drive useful chemical reactions – essentially using solar energy to produce fuels rather than electricity. A fuel is basically a way of storing energy, she says, and the idea is to produce fuels that can be transported and used as needed, even when the sun is not shining. 

“The good news is we have renewable sources of energy, and the sun in particular,” said Dukovic of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “The staggering fact is the amount of solar power reaching our planet in one hour is greater than our global energy consumption in one year. The big question is how to capture and convert this essentially infinite supply of solar energy into both electricity and fuels.”

Dukovic and her lab group – which includes two postdoctoral fellows and nine graduate students – are focused on fundamental problems in nanoscience, including using physical chemistry and materials chemistry to develop new materials that may be particularly efficient in harvesting sunlight.  

One example is to assemble “nanoscale architectures” that could absorb sunlight and help convert it to fuel, she said. “We are interested, for example, in what happens to an individual photon that is absorbed by a particular material and how that process eventually leads to chemical bonds that would be useful for storing solar energy.”

Born in Bosnia, Dukovic spent time in Croatia before moving to the United States. She received her bachelor’s of science from Rutgers University, her doctorate from Columbia University is 2006 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley before joining the CU-Boulder faculty in 2009.

Since arriving on campus, Dukovic has become a rising star. In February, she was selected to receive a prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship for $50,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders.

In 2013 Dukovic was named a Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, an award that provides up to $750,000 over four years to support Dukovic’s research on new materials for solar energy harvesting. In 2013 Dukovic also was named a Cottrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in Tucson for outstanding research and teaching, which carried an award of $75,000.

In 2012, Dukovic received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. The award is one of the highest honors given by NSF to early-career university faculty in science and engineering, and is intended to advance the development of their research and careers. Dukovic was awarded $600,000 over five years.

“These awards may come under my name, but I could not do any of this work without my students and postdocs,” she said.  “They are absolutely critical to the successes in our lab.  They spend countless hours getting difficult experiments working and they contribute new ideas to our research.”

Dukovic has had both undergraduate students and graduate students working in her lab since arriving at CU-Boulder.

In addition, she currently is teaching a graduate-level course on the chemistry of solar energy and also teaches the undergraduate physical chemistry curriculum.

Dukovic’s research also is being funded by grants from by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the American Chemical Society.