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Solar Fuels: A grand challenge of 21st century chemistry

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Posted April 24, 2014

Solar panels are becoming a familiar site in communities across the United States, but what about solar fuels? A solar fuel is produced from sunlight through artificial photosynthesis, mimicking what Mother Nature has been doing for billions of years. Many chemists and chemical engineers are working to make solar fuels a viable option in the future. In fact, there’s even a worldwide “Solar Army” on the job, and California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Harry Gray is known as their commanding general!

Fuel cells hold great promise as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. But they still are expensive, with parts that can degrade over time, and--to be widely used in ground transportation, for example--they probably would require an overhaul of the nation's infrastructure. Chulsung Bae, an NSF-funded scientist and associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology, is working to develop a key fuel cell component that he hopes will be more durable and efficient than what is currently available, as well as less costly, with the hope of promoting more widespread use of the technology. Credit: Chulsung Bae, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Fuel cells hold great promise as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. But they still are expensive, with parts that can degrade over time, and–to be widely used in ground transportation, for example–they probably would require an overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure. Chulsung Bae, an NSF-funded scientist and associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology, is working to develop a key fuel cell component that he hopes will be more durable and efficient than what is currently available, as well as less costly, with the hope of promoting more widespread use of the technology. Credit: Chulsung Bae, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Gray is director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels(CCI Solar). His troops are hundreds of senior researchers and eager students who are on a mission to find a metal oxide catalyst that can activate sunlight’s energy by deconstructing and transforming water molecules into hydrogen fuel–on a large scale and affordably.

A group of scientists has demonstrated a new way to use sunlight, water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2)--some of the cheapest and most commonplace 'stuff' on Earth--to make unlimited amounts of fuel to power almost anything, anywhere. The method uses concentrated heat from the sun to convert water and CO2 into hydrogen (H2) or carbon monoxide (CO). Large amounts of these two gases could be combined to make liquid fuel that fits into America's existing energy economy. Credit: California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Jointly owned by California Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich

A group of scientists has demonstrated a new way to use sunlight, water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2)–some of the cheapest and most commonplace ‘stuff’ on Earth–to make unlimited amounts of fuel to power almost anything, anywhere. The method uses concentrated heat from the sun to convert water and CO2 into hydrogen (H2) or carbon monoxide (CO). Large amounts of these two gases could be combined to make liquid fuel that fits into America’s existing energy economy. Credit: California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Jointly owned by California Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich

Up until now, the most effective catalysts have required pricy, precious metals, such as platinum. But, these chemists hope to identify new, much less expensive catalysts, which would make solar fuels a more affordable renewable energy option.

“Understanding the science behind the conversion of sunlight to a chemical fuel is a grand challenge for chemists. This team of chemists and chemical engineers is enhancing our understanding of fundamental chemical processes and inspiring the next generation of scientists,” says Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague, director of the Division of Chemistry within NSF’s Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom have been awarded funding totaling more than $10.3 million to improve the process of biological photosynthesis. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) collaborated in issuing the jointly funded awards. The support enables four transatlantic research teams to explore ways to overcome limitations in photosynthesis that could lead to the development of new methods for significantly increasing the yields of important crops for food production and/or sustainable bioenergy. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

Scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom have been awarded funding totaling more than $10.3 million to improve the process of biological photosynthesis. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) collaborated in issuing the jointly funded awards. The support enables four transatlantic research teams to explore ways to overcome limitations in photosynthesis that could lead to the development of new methods for significantly increasing the yields of important crops for food production and/or sustainable bioenergy. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

CCI Solar has played a leading role in fundamental research in this area, addressing basic science challenges in solar fuel production since the center’s inception in 2005 and fostering the rapidly growing national and international solar fuels research community. CCI Solar is one of the NSF-funded Centers for Chemical Innovation –research centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. CCIs that address these challenges will produce transformative research, lead to innovation, and attract broad scientific and public interest.

Source: NSF

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