Many of the top flight institutions in Oregon continue to make noteworthy advances in “green” research and technological development. For example, a University of Oregon chemist, Shannon Boettcher, is developing a novel way to harness energy from the sun. Solar energy is seen as a potential panacea for what ails the planet. The key is to find more efficient ways to convert solar energy into electricity. Boettcher is an assistant professor of inorganic and materials chemistry. He is also a signature researcher at the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute. He is also one of just 18 scientists around the world that comprised the 2011 class of “DuPont Young Professors.”
The concept that Boettcher is working on is elegant in its simplicity. Semi-conductor film is placed underwater. As sunlight hits the submerged film, electricity is greater in the immediate vicinity. When combined with an appropriate chemical catalyst, the electricity is instrumental in splitting water immediately adjacent to the film into its component parts: hydrogen and oxygen.
The oxygen is released into the atmosphere while the hydrogen can be stored for later use as a fuel. Ironically, if the hydrogen is later used to power fuel cells, the “waste” that’s emitted in the process is water.
Boettcher’s inspiration for his research is the process of photosynthesis that occurs in leaves. Chlorophyll captures sunlight which is used to split water molecules in leaves into hydrogen and oxygen ions. In photosynthesis, the hydrogen ions combine with carbon dioxide and electrons to create sugar.
Essentially, the hydrogen is stored in a chemical fuel in the processs. Boettcher wants to mimic this process; splitting water molecules into their component parts — oxygen and hydrogen. He wants to find a way to successfully store solar energy in a “chemical fuel,” just like photosynthesis does.
He conceives of his task as one of creating “artificial leaves” capable of producing valuable hydrogen fuel. Such fuel could then generate heat, produce electricity, or run fuel cell-powered vehicles. The hope is that his research will lead to new and more efficient methods for harvesting solar energy on a large scale.
To create the veritable artificial leaves, an appropriate outer surface must first be determined. Boettcher and his fellow scientists are thus far considering prominent semi-conductors like iron sulfide and tungsten oxide.
A catalyst must also be identified that will drive the reaction that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Nature has established the perfect catalyst in the process of photosynthesis; now Boettcher and his team have to identify a workable catalyst to release the valuable hydrogen.
Just why is the process that Boettcher is working on potentially superior to regular solar cells? First, the existing technology might be efficient, but it is expensive. Also, the storage of the electricity is, to date, expensive and unwieldy.
By contrast, hydrogen is a more attractive end-product. It can be compressed and burned like natural gas. Some buses, for example, already use hydrogen in this way. It can be recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity. Finally, it can be combined with carbon dioxide to form a substitute for gasoline — methanol.
Dr. Boettcher is one professor and research scientist in Oregon among others that is diligently working on ways to tackle the challenges that face our planet. The potential for breakthrough developments in sustainability is exciting indeed.