Researchers take on one of engineering's Grand Challenges

Earlier this year the National Science Foundation announced 14 Grand Engineering Challenges for the 21st century that, if met, would greatly improve our world. One of the key challenges-and the one that currently ranks as #1 (see below) - is making solar energy efficient and economical.

That's where the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Chemical Bonding Center (CBC) project comes in.  The group this week said it received a five-year, $20 million award from the NSF to help it develop a nanoscale-sized system that captures sunlight and converts it to an electrical charge. The interaction of the system's electrical charge and an oxygen catalyst produce oxygen gas and positively charged hydrogen ions or protons from water. The electrical charge, in combination with a hydrogen catalyst and protons, produces hydrogen gas, the group said.

In its NSF award, Caltech said its overarching "Powering the Planet" research has 3 primary components:  a membrane-supported assembly that captures sunlight and then efficiently separates and transports charge, a two-electron catalyst that reduces water to hydrogen, and a four-electron catalyst that oxidizes water to oxygen. The research will involve semiconductor materials, polymeric and inorganic membranes, synthesis, theory, and mechanistic chemistry. Ultimately the research will provide the foundation for future carbon-neutral energy technologies, researchers said.

Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus professor of energy and professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently announced that he had developed a catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water. In use with an electrical conducting glass electrode, the new catalyst, made from the earth-abundant materials cobalt and phosphate, produces oxygen gas from neutral pH water using a relatively low potential at room temperature and pressure, the researchers said.

The hydrogen and oxygen gases produced will be usable by a fuel cell, where they will react to reform water, generating electricity for powering an electric car or other devices. The gases may also be used as a source of energy after the sun goes down, and will generate a carbon-neutral or oil-free source of energy scalable to meet global energy demands, researchers said.

Sounds like a good start.  Meanwhile visitors to Grand Challenge site have been voting on what they think are the greatest challenges. Through June 30 there have been 25,113 votes.

 The Grand Challenges in their current order are:

1. Make solar energy economical

2. Provide energy from fusion

3. Provide access to clean water

4. Reverse-engineer the brain

5. Advance personalized learning

6. Develop carbon sequestration methods

7. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

8. Restore and improve urban infrastructure

9. Advance health informatics

10. Prevent nuclear terror

11. Engineer better medicines

12. Enhance virtual reality

13.  Manage the nitrogen cycle

14. Secure cyberspace

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