Powering the Planet (with photocatalysts)

June 5, 2008 at 11:53 pm Leave a comment

Solar cells can take sunlight and produce a current, giving instant power. But as soon as the Sun goes down, the lights go dim. If you could turn sunlight into fuel, you’d be on to a good thing. Plants take water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars and starches. This provides all the fuel they need, and most of the fuel we need too, in the form of food or oil. The problem is that plants aren’t very efficient at fuel making – only about 3% of the Sun’s energy ends up as useable fuel.

This is the opening to Katharine Sanderson’s report in Nature (27 March 2008, p. 400) titled “Chemistry: The Photon Trap“. Her article describes an NSF-funded project called Powering the Planet that joins the efforts of three teams of inorganic chemists together to make an inexpensive, non-toxic material that will convert sunlight and water into hydrogen (the fuel) and oxygen. The research teams, two at Caltech and one at MIT, haven’t reached their goal yet, but the Nature article explains how far they’ve come, what kinds of ideas they are working on, and how far they have to go. The article also showcases efforts by some competing research teams in Europe (Solar-H), Japan (Kazunari Domen, U. Tokyo), and elsewhere.

The article concludes, “Sunlight is truly our largest energy resource by far – it outshines everything else“, but it also is quite clear that learning to convert sunlight and water into hydrogen and oxygen will require a staggering amount of thought, work, and plain old luck.


Entry filed under: In the News.

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