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News > AF Funding Enables Artificial Photosynthesis
AF Funding Enables Artificial Photosynthesis

Posted 10/6/2008   Updated 10/6/2008 Email story   Print story


by Molly Lachance
Air Force Office of Scientific Research

10/6/2008 - ARLINGTON, Va. -- The news media has paid a great deal of attention to Daniel Nocera's breakthrough research in artificial photosynthesis, and with good reason. This technology has the potential to power an entire building for one day using only a few gallons of water and light energy from the sun.

Solar energy could be a powerful solution to the energy needs of the future for both military and commercial entities, but as Dr. Nocera points out, power is needed all the time, not just when the sun is shining.

Therefore, he and his research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are investigating new methods to store solar energy. Dr. Nocera is the first to admit that this is not a new concept, but the key to his research has been finding a technique that is cheap, efficient and easy to manufacture.

After ruling out several lower energy options, Dr. Nocera's team chose to pursue photosynthesis, which naturally stores energy when splitting the bonds of water to produce oxygen and nature's chemical equivalent of hydrogen, NADPH. Using this model, he sought to develop an artificial photosynthesis that split water molecules into oxygen and molecular hydrogen (rather than NADPH) without the costs and harsh conditions that accompany existing commercial electrolyzers.

Support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) has enabled Dr. Nocera to conduct the basic research necessary to make this possible.

Using cobalt as a catalyst and phosphate as a proton acceptor, Dr. Nocera is able to demonstrate a method for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules under environmentally friendly conditions.

In a presentation at AFOSR, he expressed great pride in how easily this method can be prepared, saying that he often invites reporters and other interested parties into his lab to perform the experiment themselves.

In the water-splitting experiment, the team places an electrode in phosphate-buffered water containing cobalt. When they apply electricity, oxygen evolves from one side in a thin amorphous film containing phosphate and cobalt while hydrogen evolves simultaneously from the other side.

Because the catalytic film forms in situ, or in the reaction mixture, a self-repair mechanism is implied. In this case, meaning that as oxygen evolves, cobalt is thought to cycle through different oxidation states as it attaches to phosphate and then to the electrode. The results indicate that any cobalt that falls off the electrode appears to reattach to another phosphate, activating it for another catalytic cycle.

The ultimate goal of this research is to have buildings serve as their own power stations. Given the ready availability of both cobalt-phosphate catalysts and solar-generated electricity, it would be possible to use any excess daytime electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. These products could be immediately stored and then recombined at night with fuel cells to power buildings as well as plug-in ground vehicles.

Realization of this goal is still a long way off, but Dr. Nocera is excited to continue his breakthrough research. He has already contacted vendors to manufacture new components for expanded testing and in the near future would like to demonstrate the saltwater-desalinization utility of the process as well.

By funding research scientists like Dr. Nocera, AFOSR continues to expand the horizon of scientific knowledge through its leadership and management of the Air Force's basic research program.

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