Material inspired by nature could turn water into fuel

October 21, 2015
Material inspired by nature could turn water into fuel

Scientists have theoretically designed a new material that could help supply the world with clean energy by turning water into fuel, using just the power of the sun.

Chemists at the University of Reading say a new catalyst, which mimics the way plants absorb energy from the sun, could make the energy-sapping job of into and oxygen relatively easy.

As well as potentially being able to produce hydrogen for fuel cells, the complex new material could also be used to turn carbon dioxide from the air into a carbon-based fuel, such as methanol.

Dr Ricardo Grau-Crespo, from the Chemistry Department of the University of Reading, led the team that made the discovery.

"Finding a material that can help create readily available fuels is one of the holy grails of science," he said.

"While we still have a long way to go, our new findings could be a significant step forward in the search for cheaper, environmentally-friendly fuels to power the future."

Energy efficient

Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen is an energy-intensive process, which currently requires much more energy in from electricity than comes out in usable fuel.

To make the process more efficient, scientists use a photocatalyst - a material that absorbs light from the sun and uses it to excite electrons to higher energy levels. These excited electrons, and the empty spaces they leave behind, are then capable of driving forward the two half-reactions required to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Unfortunately, finding a good photocatalyst is tricky as its properties have to be very precise to allow the reaction to take place. One of the best photocatalyst material available, titanium oxide, is too inefficient to produce more than a tiny amount of hydrogen, as it can only absorb energy from ultraviolet light.

The Reading-led team used supercomputer simulations to look at many different candidates as potential photocatalysts for fuel production reactions.

In new research, published in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Journal of Materials Chemistry A, they found that some metal-organic frameworks, which combine metal atoms and organic molecules, exhibit the ideal electronic structure required to catalyse these reactions.

Inspired by nature

Dr Grau-Crespo said: "Our research is inspired by nature, as porphyrin is related to chlorophylls, the green pigments which allow plants to convert sunlight into chemical energy.

"The challenge now is to incorporate these wonderful natural catalysts into capable of doing the specific chemical job we need. If we can do this, it could lead to highly-efficient conversion of solar energy to - providing a clean, storable and transferrable source of ."

Explore further: Organic framework serves as a catalyst for the photocatalytic conversion of water into hydrogen

More information: Said Hamad et al. Electronic structure of porphyrin-based metal organic frameworks and their suitability for solar fuel production photocatalysis, J. Mater. Chem. A (2015). DOI: 10.1039/C5TA06982C

Related Stories

New step towards future production of solar fuels

January 26, 2015

One way of storing solar energy is to transform the energy directly into a fuel. Researchers at Uppsala University have shown a reaction which makes the process of creating fuel from solar energy more efficient and less energy ...

Recommended for you

Scientific advances can make it easier to recycle plastics

November 17, 2017

Most of the 150 million tons of plastics produced around the world every year end up in landfills, the oceans and elsewhere. Less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, rising to about 30 percent in ...

The spliceosome—now available in high definition

November 17, 2017

UCLA researchers have solved the high-resolution structure of a massive cellular machine, the spliceosome, filling the last major gap in our understanding of the RNA splicing process that was previously unclear.

Ionic 'solar cell' could provide on-demand water desalination

November 15, 2017

Modern solar cells, which use energy from light to generate electrons and holes that are then transported out of semiconducting materials and into external circuits for human use, have existed in one form or another for over ...

Pulling iron out of waste printer toner

November 15, 2017

Someday, left-over toner in discarded printer cartridges could have a second life as bridge or building components instead of as trash, wasting away in landfills and potentially harming the environment. One group reports ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.