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In the search for alternatives to oil-based fuels, one of the most promising, and challenging, strategies involves splitting water. Researchers have for decades made strides in using sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, wherein the resulting hydrogen gas can be used as stored fuel. But the method is still too expensive. Materials called catalysts are needed to run the reaction, and the catalyst that works best, platinum, is rare and pricey. The hunt is on for good catalysts made of Earth-abundant, inexpensive materials.
"People were talking about splitting water back when I was a graduate student, during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. In fact, you can find papers in the literature where people talk about this as far back as the early part of the 20th century," says Jay Winkler (Ph.D. '84), a faculty associate and lecturer in chemistry at Caltech and a member of the Beckman Institute. "Platinum works very well as the catalyst, but it's not a practical material for large-scale energy generation because there's just not enough of it. Some other materials run the reaction well but are also very rare."
Winkler - Colleagues - Harry - Gray - Arnold
Winkler and his colleagues, led by Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and former graduate advisor to Winkler, have been busy developing new types of catalysts based on environmentally friendly materials like iron and nickel. Their goal is not only to find new catalysts made of Earth-abundant materials, but also to find ways to make those catalysts drive the water-splitting reaction as efficiently as possible. Doing so would reduce the overall cost of the reaction enough to compete with natural resources like oil. This research is associated with the Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels (CCI Solar), a National Science Foundation-center based at Caltech.
Winkler's focus is on zapping metals...
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