85% of chemical products such as fertilizer and plastics are made by using a catalyst, which speeds up the chemical reaction. But it's pretty hard to make a catalyst that is both energy efficient and selective. But what if I told you that light could lend our catalyst a helping hand? Here’s how: A lot of catalytic reactions happen by using very fine powders of silver and gold. We call these nanoparticles. The interesting thing is that these nanoparticles don't look like a shiny metal at all, because they interact very strongly with light. For example, gold nanoparticles look beautifully red.
When we shine light on these nanoparticles during a chemical reaction, the light shakes the electron cloud in the nanoparticles back and forth and suddenly very different reaction mechanisms are possible than if we simply heated them up in a normal reactor. The great advantage of this is that we can allow chemical reactions to take place that would normally be very difficult. The goal of my research is to use light and metal nanoparticles cleverly to drive reactions and move them in the right direction.