A new material inspired by the way plants convert sunlight into energy is capable of absorbing sunlight and then using it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The advance could pave the way for a large and inexpensive supply of clean energy in the future.
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"Finding a material that could help create readily available fuels is one of the holy grails of science," Ricardo Grau-Crespo, from the Chemistry Department at the University of Reading, told Phys.org.
Grau-Crespo and his colleagues looked to nature for guidance, specifically at the way plants use green pigments called chlorophyll to convert sunlight into chemical energy.
The group then used supercomputer simulations to help identify the best candidates for photocatalysts for fuel production reaction. They reached the conclusion that some metal-organic frameworks have the ideal structure.
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From there, they developed a material based on those frameworks, which uses sunlight to excite electrons. The electrons, along with the empty spaces that they leave behind, split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is usually a fairly taxing process, but in this case, is done quite efficiently.
Theoretically, the material could turn the air's carbon dioxide into a carbon-based fuel, like methanol and split hydrogen from water to be used in hydrogen fuel cells.
"The challenge now is to incorporate these wonderful natural catalysts into materials 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 chemical energy – providing a clean, storable and transferrable source of energy," Dr. Grau-Crespo said.