Sunlight + Water = Fuel with Artificial Leaves

April 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

The April 1 issue of Science (News & Analysis, p. 25) reports on the development of a leaf-sized silicon wafer that is coated on each side with chemical photocatalysts. When the wafer is dipped in water and exposed to the Sun, sunlight is absorbed by silicon, mobilizing electrons inside that material. The catalyst coating on one side of the wafer delivers these mobile electrons to water molecules, converting them into molecular oxygen. A different catalyst on the other side of the wafer replaces these electrons by converting water into molecular hydrogen. Molecular hydrogen is an easily transported and stored fuel, and when it is burned, it liberates energy and converts hydrogen and oxygen back into water, closing the loop. The guiding force behind this technology, chemistry professor Dan Nocera at MIT, hopes to have a commercial version of the wafer ready in just 2-3 years.

It’s interesting to consider this development in light of an editorial, “Inspirational Chemistry”, that appeared in the March 18 issue of Science. The authors, Profs. Harry Gray and Jay Labinger, chemists at Caltech, identified photosynthesis as one of the fundamental scientific problems that chemists are currently working on. Looking at the importance of chemistry in the years to come, they wrote:

“[Chemistry] is the discipline that will continue to drive the discoveries that tackle today’s most vexing challenges: solving the energy problem, developing and producing new treatments for diseases, devising advanced materials for a host of application, and many more. … the creative future of chemistry … lies in myriad directions.”


Entry filed under: In the News.

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