13 June 2023

Otago PhD student from Pakistan converts solar energy into clean, green hydrogen


With the world fast running out of fossil fuels, the work of researchers like international student Mohsin Ijaz could bring us closer to producing alternative sources of renewable energy such as hydrogen cost-effectively.

Scientists the world over are working to find alternatives to fossil fuels. Hydrogen is one such alternative that caught Mohsin Ijaz and his research supervisor Professor Richard Blaikie’s eye.

Hydrogen has become a “very, very hot topic” because it is a clean, green source of renewable energy, Mohsin says.

“But the problem with hydrogen is its expensive production cost.

“Solar energy is the biggest source of energy but maybe 99 percent is wasted.

“We therefore need to find ways for efficient conversion of solar into hydrogen energy following New Zealand’s 2025 renewable energy target.”

Mohsin’s research could help develop practical devices that effectively convert solar energy to hydrogen. His work focuses on enhancing how solar cells absorb light or solar energy using metallic nanostructures than can then effectively help convert solar energy into hydrogen.

His thesis, which he handed in March this year, has had him develop a ‘proof of concept’ to show how hydrogen can be produced from solar energy more efficiently.

Earlier this year, Mohsin was also one of two University of Otago students to win spots to attend the Global Young Scientist Summit in Singapore. The summit was a great opportunity to connect young researchers with scientists who are world class within their fields, he says.

Mohsin in Singapore earlier this year, where he attended the Global Young Scientist Summit.

Choosing University of Otago for its high ranking in the field

For someone who is now fully immersed in the world of physics, research in a pure science was not at the top of Mohsin’s list when he was at college.

Growing up in Pakistan, Mohsin was initially drawn to study science for the skills, knowledge, and benefits that he saw advancements in STEM bringing to developing communities around him.

But he enjoyed studying physics so much that he decided to pursue research in physics instead of opting for a more applied field such as software engineering.

Mohsin had offers to study for his PhD from three universities in the UK, China, and Canada. All of which he swept aside in favour of the University of Otago because the university ranked higher in his chosen field than the other institutions he was looking at.

“The people I interacted with at Otago during the application process were nice and friendly, especially my research supervisor Richard Blaikie. This is comfortable, I thought. I should work with him,” Mohsin said.

Mohsin arrived in New Zealand to work on his PhD in March 2020, a mere two weeks before the global pandemic forced border closures around the world. Working on his PhD for three years without being able to visit family back in Pakistan wasn’t easy.

“I feel lucky [for this experience] but it has been hard too.”

University’s collaborative and kind culture a huge support

Mohsin with research supervisor Richard Blaikie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, and Professor in Physics, at the University of Otago

He has immensely enjoyed working with his supervisor Professor Blaikie, and appreciates the university’s collaborative, kind culture that helped him do his best.

“Richard helped me a lot, always supportive and so approachable.

“I was used to a different way of doing things during my master’s back home. So I had lots of questions for people initially. But everyone was so patient, supportive, and friendly. That rubbed off on me too. It’s important how we behave, how we treat people,” he says.

Mohsin has been a great student and colleague over the time that he has been a research student in our group at Otago, says his supervisor, Richard Blaikie.

“He was very lucky to be able to get into New Zealand just before the first lockdown in 2020, but that meant that we interacted virtually for the first few months of his PhD!

“It also meant that he had to work as independently as possible – he is very intelligent and resourceful, and it was great to see him quickly get to grips with his project and experiments.”

It was clear that Mohsin’s undergraduate and master’s research from Pakistan had prepared him well, Blaikie says.

“The symmetry to our relationship is that my PhD in the UK was supervised by a professor who was originally from Pakistan also, so I know that the quality of their education system was very high.”

Dunedin best city for students

Mohsin has also enjoyed studying and living in Dunedin and thinks it offers a good education environment and lifestyle.

“It’s the best city for students. It’s not very expensive, not crowded. There are lots of outdoor activities you can enjoy – hiking, running, and cycling.

He does occasionally miss Pakistani-style food in Dunedin but not having easy access to the food of his childhood has now got him honing his cooking skills.

“I can cook a range of Pakistani dishes when I do crave them – varieties of meat curries, biryani, a good chicken kadhai, and even rotis, parathas and dals,” he says.

In the not-too-distant future, Mohsin hopes to be a post-doctoral fellow, publishing as high impact research as possible.

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