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Breakthrough in quest for solar hydrogen production

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March 14, 2010

Bubbles form during water oxidation, catalyzed by the new tetra-cobalt WOC (Photo: Benjami...

Bubbles form during water oxidation, catalyzed by the new tetra-cobalt WOC (Photo: Benjamin Yin)

Scientists at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, have built on feats of Mother Nature to develop the most potent homogeneous catalyst known for water oxidation, which they hope will lead to producing clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight. Could cars of the future be powered by just water and a solar collector on the roof?

The water oxidation catalyst (WOC) research is a component of the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center (EBREC), which aims to copy natural processes like photosynthesis to generate clean fuel. The next step involves incorporating the WOC into a solar-driven, water-splitting system. The long-term goal is to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. While hydrogen becomes the fuel, its combustion produces water - which would then flow back into a clean, green, renewable cycle. “The fastest, carbon-free molecular WOC to date has really upped the standard from the other known homogeneous WOCs," said Emory inorganic chemist Craig Hill, whose lab led the effort. "It's like a home run compared to a base hit."

The new WOC is based on the cheap and abundant element cobalt, adding to its potential to help solar energy go mainstream.

Challenges

The lab developed a stable, carbon-free WOC prototype two years ago, but this was based was ruthenium, a relatively rare and expensive element. Three main technical challenges face the team. They are developing a light collector, a catalyst to oxidize water to oxygen and a catalyst to reduce water to hydrogen.

Hill says all three components need improvement, but a viable WOC may be the most difficult scientific challenge. "We are aiming for a WOC that is free of organic structure, because organic components will combine with oxygen and self-destruct," Hill says. "You'll wind up with a lot of gunk." "We've duplicated this complex natural process by taking some of the essential features from photosynthesis and using them in a synthetic, carbon-free, homogeneous system. The result is a water oxidation catalyst that is far more stable than the one found in nature."

The breakthrough, to be published in Science was made in collaboration with the Paris Institute of Molecular Chemistry.

9 Comments

Keep up the good work!

bio-power jeff
15th March, 2010 @ 01:07 am PDT

The research that is now underway in areas like this give us great hope that we will escape from our dependancy on fossil fuels. I am editing a new site that will launch shortly that will focus on the cost effectiveness of methods to achieve sustainable living

Chris Floate
15th March, 2010 @ 07:17 am PDT

i read research article in "science" about 2yrs ago. utilizing nanocrystalline gold as catalyst to "kick out " hydrogen". subsequent hospitalizations: "misfiling misfits". actually i recall two articles published in journals, about same time.

oldealchemist
15th March, 2010 @ 11:30 am PDT

Hydrogen in a "Fuel Cell" would produce electricity and water, but if combusted to power an ICE than it is consumed, converted to energy and a small amount of unburned Hydrogen may recombine with Oxygen and produce a little water. Maybe someone can tell me that basically burning good clean water is a good idea, when there is already a shortage of good clean water in many countries. I fear that the unintended consequences will result in even greater water shortages in the future.

Lawrence Wm Smith II
15th March, 2010 @ 08:05 pm PDT

@ Lawrence.

If you make it a closed system you could just use the same water over and over.

Sweet as.

Craig Jennings
20th March, 2010 @ 05:53 pm PDT

This is nothing new. In the 80's a South African inventor went down this same pathway and successfully developed a hydrogen splitting catalyst. He even built a refinery to mass produce the catalyst, but then everything went south when the refinery was burnt down and the inventor killed. Suffice to say a Oil company bought his patent. Non of this technology is going anywhere until the oil eating bacteria is released. Its the only way to break this shocking oil money cycle of technology deniers.

Facebook User
21st March, 2010 @ 03:20 pm PDT

Very good Innovation. Hydrogen Energy is the future fuel. Hydrogen and Fuel Cells form alternative to conventional energy.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Anumakonda Jagadeesh
6th April, 2010 @ 08:55 pm PDT

too bad they don't tell you that the thing is only active for a matter of seconds. way to solve the world energy crisis when you have to regenerate the catalyst almost as fast as it produces anything important.

foff
21st September, 2010 @ 11:50 pm PDT

You guys need to use the word "breakthrough" less often. It gets a bit old and is disappointing when I discover that it is actually nothing significantly new or exciting.

Now, an article about an anti-breakthrough that I could laugh at would be much appreciated.

Ethan Brush
12th December, 2011 @ 04:15 pm PST
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