Jonathan Hunt ’15 works for the future of solar energy with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Chemistry, News 28 Apr 2016

Jonathan HuntJonathan Ryan Hunt ’15 is currently engaged in research so complex, it seems to have come straight out of an advanced chemistry textbook.

Words and phrases like “donor-bridge-acceptor compounds” and “photosensitizers for homogeneous catalysis” go over the heads of those less scientifically inclined, but the importance of the solar energy-related research he is doing is clear.

Hunt was recently recognized for his research when he was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which acknowledges and supports top graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics who are pursuing research-based Master’s and doctoral degrees in the United States.

Those chosen for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships have demonstrated potential for significant achievement and impact in their field.

The fellowship will provide funding for the remainder of Hunt’s graduate program, allowing for collaborative research with students at other institutions as well as numerous networking and career development opportunities.

Currently in the Ph.D. program in physical chemistry at University of Southern California, Hunt’s research focuses on new methods of solar energy storage.

“We’re interested in storing the energy from sunlight in chemical products, and we’re trying to figure out how to do that,” he says. “We’re working on the fundamentals necessary for the development of the second generation of solar cells. Instead of generating electricity, we want to create fuels, like hydrogen gas from water or methanol from carbon dioxide.”

Hunt plans to work with hematite, a mineral that is basically rust, which he believes shows great promise as a photoanode for water splitting—the production of hydrogen and oxygen gas—in the next generation of solar cells.

“That’s of course great because rust is cheap and plentiful,” explains Hunt. “Research has been done in attempts to improve its utilization in solar cells via various surface functionalizations, but I took this a step further in my proposal by increasing the breadth and depth of this topic.”

While completing his major in chemistry at Centre College, Hunt worked closely with Professor of Chemistry Ed Montgomery, especially during a computational chemistry course. Students in the class studied atomic confinement as a way to model ionization of hydrogen in the atmosphere of gas planets.

Following the course, Montgomery and Hunt co-wrote a paper on the students’ findings that was published in the December 2014 issue of The Chemical Educator. Hunt was listed as the lead author.

“Jonathan can look at a problem and quickly separate the important factors from the trivial details,” says Montgomery. “He has a keen eye for effective presentation of quantitative data, and he writes with impressive clarity and style.”

In turn, Hunt is appreciative of the guidance and direction given by his professors at Centre.

“For so many students, it’s a rough transition from undergrad to graduate school, but for me it was pretty smooth,” he says. “I had a strong background in the necessary subjects and was pretty accustomed to high expectations.”

While at Centre, Hunt was a Brown Fellow and was very active in the music department, playing in seven ensembles and helping found Centre Encore, a student music society.

He is grateful for the research experience he gained as a Brown Fellow, which included doing biochemical research on beer foam at Cornell University and inorganic catalysis research at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

“The experiences I had through the Brown Fellow program prepared me for the research required of me as a graduate student but, more importantly, exposed me to a great deal of different research subjects and research practices,” says Hunt. “My summer experiences allowed me a degree of soul-searching that very few undergraduates, particularly in science fields, get to experience and, as such, provided me with a pretty clear research and career trajectory.”

Hunt’s ultimate goal is to become a professor at a small, primarily undergraduate institution much like Centre. He also hopes that his research will be used in the future to benefit his home state of Kentucky, perhaps with hematite or rust displacing coal as a major energy source, while providing comparable or better economic resources to affected communities.

“After all,” he says, “you can find rust anywhere!”

by Mary Trollinger
April 28, 2016