Researchers are turning water into fuel

Scientists in the US have found 12 new materials that have the potential for use in solar fuels in just two years. Solar fuels are created using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

Solar fuels could one day replace coal, oil and other fossil fuels, making them a dream of clean-energy research. According to Berkeley Lab, researchers around the world are exploring a range of possible target fuels, but one possibility is to produce hydrogen by splitting water.

Each water molecule consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Pure hydrogen is highly flammable, making it an ideal fuel. But water molecules do not simply break down when the sunlight shines on them – if they did, explains Berkeley Lab, oceans would not cover three-quarters of the planet. Instead, a solar-powered catalyst is needed to trigger the reaction.

Over the past decades, researchers have been trying to develop low-cost and efficient materials to perform the necessary chemistry using only visible light as an energy source. Only 16 of these “photoanode” materials have been discovered in all that time.

But thanks to a new high-throughput method of identifying new materials, scientists at Berkeley Lab and Caltech have found 12 promising new photoanodes in just two years.

While previous materials discovery processes relied on cumbersome testing of individual compounds to assess their potential for use in specific applications, the scientists combined computational and experimental approaches to mine a materials database for potentially useful compounds. They then could rapidly test the most promising candidates using high-throughput experimentation.

“The key advance made by the team was to combine the best capabilities enabled by theory and supercomputers with novel high throughput experiments to generate scientific knowledge at an unprecedented rate,” said John Gregoire from Caltech.

While the scientists were excited to find 12 new potential photoanodes, they are even more excited to have a new materials discovery pipeline going forward, added Gregoire.


Image credit: Caltech

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