It is being estimated that the total energy produced through non-renewable resources is less than the amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the earth in a single year.
Rapid development was seen in the technologies necessary for the conversion of sunlight into electricity. However, the storage insufficiency and distribution of the power converted was a significant problem. And this leads to the solar energy concept impractical on a larger scale.
A critical obstacle in the process was eliminated by researchers at UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the California Institute of Technology and the US DOE’s (Department of Energy’s) Argonne National Laboratory discovered a stride towards the future of Clean Energy. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory were also part of the research.
One of the processes to harness solar energy is that by using solar electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. Out of which hydrogen produced in the process is stored to be used as fuel. The hydrogen is in a form that can be transferred from one place to another to generate power on demand.
But the method requires a catalyst in the process of breaking down water molecules, and the catalytic materials used are not much efficient to make the process practical.
A team of researchers at UVA developed an innovative chemical strategy to produce a new form of a catalyst with the use of elements like cobalt and titanium. The team was under the leadership of chemistry professors Sen Zhang and T.Bernt Gunnoe.
The elements used in the new catalyst are abundant in nature.
T. Bernt Gunnoe said that “Several years ago, UVA joined the MAXNET Energy Consortium, which was comprised of pre-existing eight Max Planck Institutes (Germany) and Cardiff University (United Kingdom) which brought together great international collaborative efforts on the electrocatalytic water oxidation”.
He also added that “MAXNET Energy came as a unit due to which the current joint efforts were established between my team and the Zhang lab, which continued further and grew in much fruitful and productive collaboration”.
Sen Zhang explained that the new process involves active catalytic sites at the atomic level on the surface of nanocrystals of titanium oxide. This technique is better at triggering the evolution reaction of oxygen due to the production of the durable catalytic material.
This new approach towards the oxygen evolution reaction catalyst and enhanced fundamental understanding of them as a key to enable the possible transition towards the scaled use of solar energy.
This optimized the efficiency of the catalyst for clean energy technology by introducing the new nanomaterials at the atomic scale.
However, Gunnoe exclaimed that this innovation was a major achievement by the Zhang lab as they represented the new method to improve and understand the catalytic material. Their efforts lead to the integration of advanced material synthesis and atomic level characterization with the application of quantum mechanics theory.
The Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory helped with their state of art synchrotron X-ray absorption spectroscopy user facilities. This facility was used to examine or test the structure of matter at the atomic level through the radiation.
The research team used this facility and found that the catalyst has a well-defined structure. Then they observed how the catalyst evolved in the meantime of the evolution reaction of oxygen, which resulted in an accurate evaluation of its performance.
The Advanced Photon Source is located at Argonne National Laboratory and the Advanced Light Source is located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory whereas these both are U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facilities.
Jill Venton, Chairman of UVA’s Department of Chemistry said that “This achievement is a great example of the team effort by UVA and other research partners towards the development of clean energy which was a result of great collaboration”.