Solar Army

Only those with their heads in the sand are unaware of the energy challenges we face. And besides the obvious danger of asphyxiation, having one’s head in the sand has two additional detractions: it’s a waste of silicon, which could be more usefully employed in solar panels, and it reduces the body surface area available to absorb the warmth of the sun.

Solar energy has made a contribution to our burgeoning appetite for power. Still, burning fossil fuels remains as the key ingredient in powering our planet. This has two inescapable limitations: someday we will run out of oil, coal, and natural gas, and combustion of these carbon sources perturbs climate regulation.

A solution to this dilemma is hydrogen. It’s plentiful and clean to burn. The trouble is that efficiently and cheaply extracting it from the most available source (water) has proven resistant to even the best science we have. But there are good prospects for the future thanks to talented researchers and collaborations with an army of young volunteers.

Officially, the Powering the Planet Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI Solar) is a multi-institutional collaborative coordinated at Caltech. The goal is to reproduce the magic of photosynthesis and coax sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The key missing ingredient is finding catalysts made of abundant materials that are cheap and safe. The irrepressible Professor Harry Gray of Caltech has assembled a “solar army” of students at all levels to test the endless combinations of metal oxide catalysts that might fill the bill. A $600 LEGO-based robot using an ink jet printer to deposit metal oxide combinations and a laser test device is all that is needed to conduct this research project. And besides uncovering several promising leads that could power truly innovative solar technologies, the experience has inspired a whole new crop of eager young people engaging in real science. What could be better?

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

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