Research Theme: Discovering and engineering the nature's catalytic processes for ecosystem reconstruction (Ecochemistry)

The goal of our research is to harness the catalytic processes in the nature to achieve artificial cycles of elements and energy toward ecosystem reconstruction, at the intersection of chemistry, physics, biology, ecology and materials science.

The ecosystem, which includes the biotic components (e.g., animals, plants and microorganisms) and physical environments (e.g., atmosphere, water and soil) with extensive interactions, works through the cycles of various elements and energy in the nature to supply various goods and services for sustaining our life and development. Unfortunately, anthropogenic activities have influenced and destroyed the nature’s cycles, causing various ecosystem problems, such as air and water pollution, soil contamination, and greenhouse effect. These problems can cause abrupt changes in the ecosystem and eventually devastate the abiotic conditions of the ecosystem. As such, ecosystem reconstruction has been known as the key to upholding the long-term development of human society.

Essentially, the issues related to the ecosystem are caused by the misplacement of various elements in specific locations due to anthropogenic activities. For example, vast carbon elements were turned into the form of carbon dioxide through excessive use of fossil fuels, becoming a major atmospheric issue; tremendous nitrogen and phosphorus elements entered domestic wastewater, causing water pollution. These elements are indispensable for life and human beings; however, the nature’s cycles for elements, essential catalytic processes through biotic components, are no longer competent to sustain a healthy ecosystem just because their efficiency lags behind the extent of anthropogenic activities. More disastrously, the resulting environmental issues have significant impact on the biotic components, which have led to biodiversity loss.

Facing the grand challenges, we propose to harness the catalytic processes in the nature to achieve artificial cycles of elements and energy, whose efficiency can be enhanced through designing materials and devices to meet the demands of anthropogenic activities. Currently our research includes the combination of five routes -- photocatalysis, electrocatalysis, photoelectrochemical system, plasmonic catalysis and biocatalysis. In our research, we employ ultrafast or operando spectroscopic techniques, combined with theoretical simulations, to depict the charge dynamics and molecule reaction processes. As such, we can rationally design materials and devices to enhance the efficiency of artificial cycles of elements and energy. This multidisciplinary research across the boundaries can reveal the essential mechanisms involved in molecular activation and selective conversion in complex energy coupling systems, paving the way to ecosystem reconstruction.