Stafford (Staff) Sheehan took a break from his research on synthetic photosynthesis to attend this past summer’s Lindau Meeting in Germany.
His adventure started in Washington, D.C., where he and 72 other members of the U.S. delegation visited the Department of Energy and met with representatives of funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, which provided the fellowship for his trip and supports his education at Yale. The group then traveled to Germany to learn from and interact with 34 Nobel Prize winners and 624 young scientists from around the world. Two postdoctoral fellows from Yale, Daniel Eiler and Anke Roth, also attended.
“It’s the best conference you could go to: all of the talks are given by Nobel laureates; the other students are some of the best young scientists from around the world; Lindau Island is breathtaking; and the social events were tons of fun. The Nobel laureates were certainly impressive, but even more so was the caliber of the other young researchers there,” Staff says. “Everyone I met was brilliant.”
The scientific program at Lindau rotates among the fields in which Nobel Prizes are awarded. This year it was dedicated to chemistry, and “green chemistry” was one of the central topics of talks, panels, and discussions.
At Yale, Staff studies artificial photosynthesis: the man-made process of converting light energy from the sun to chemical energy that is stored in fuel. “Think of it as a solar cell that produces an environmentally benign fuel instead of electricity,” he says. “Photovoltaic solar cells produce electricity from sunlight, but at this point we don’t have a good way to store it. And since sunlight is intermittent, we need to be able to store its energy effectively. Batteries are one way to do it, but it would take over 13,000 smartphone lithium-ion batteries to equal the amount of energy stored in one gallon of gasoline.
“Currently biofuels are used to supplement fossil fuels as a gasoline additive in the U.S. to reduce harmful emissions. When they’re made from plant waste products like corn cobs, they’re a decent source of renewable fuel, but the cost of production and scale will never compete with fossil fuels. With global energy consumption increasing and fossil fuel reserves decreasing, not to mention climate change, we need better renewable fuels. This is where artificial photosynthesis comes in.”
Staff specifically works on light absorbers and catalysts in artificial photosynthetic solar cells. The light absorbers collect sunlight using metal nanoparticles. The catalysts take the energy from the collected sunlight and use it to split water into oxygen and hydrogen — a renewable fuel that produces only water when it combusts. He started on this topic as a freshman at Boston College, and now works in the labs of Chemistry Professor Charles Schmuttenmaer and Applied Physics Professor Hui Cao.
While at Lindau, Staff auditioned to take part in a video debate on renewable energy, organized by Nature. Participants were Nobel Laureate Hartmut Michel, who won the prize in chemistry in 1988 for his work on photosynthesis; former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who won in physics in 1997 for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with lasers; and three young scientists, including Staff. The video was published on Nature Video’s YouTube channel and can be viewed on this YouTube page. An article by the debaters, “Fueling the future,” was published in the Outlooks section of Nature on October 17.
“They took us off Lindau Island for an afternoon and brought us to a farm on mainland Germany to film it,” he says. “It was exciting to talk about fuels with two major players in the field. Steven Chu is charismatic and commanded a lot of respect, both in the video and at the meeting overall. I’m happy that for the most part he’s also proponent of artificial photosynthesis, so that I didn’t have to go head-to-head with him in the debate, because I certainly would have lost that match-up. Hartmut Michel knows natural photosynthesis inside and out, and his opinion of its ability to provide fuel is very low.”
In New Haven, when not working on his research, Staff chairs the Graduate & Professional Student Senate (GPSS) social committee, which organizes mixers, dances, parties, and more. For the past two years, he was a senator for the physical sciences for GPSS and also represented his department in the Graduate Student Assembly.