“An Energy Miracle” ~ Making Solar Fuel to Power Our Energy Needs


Bill Gates Fuel from Solar AAEAAQAAAAAAAArDAAAAJDNlZDZlNmMzLTZkYjMtNDNlYy1iMTliLTIyMzY2ZDg5MjcwOQ

*** Bill Gates: Original Post From gatesnotes.com  

The sun was out in full force the fall morning I arrived at Caltech to visit Professor Nate Lewis’s research laboratory. Temperatures in southern California had soared to 20 degrees above normal, prompting the National Weather Service to issue warnings for extreme fire danger and heat-related illnesses.

The weather was a fitting introduction to what I had come to see inside Nate’s lab—how we might be able to tap the sun’s tremendous energy to make fuels to power cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes.

Stepping into the lab cluttered with computer screens, jars of chemicals, beakers, and other equipment, Nate handed me a pair of safety goggles and offered some advice for what I was about to see. “Everything we do is simple in the end, even though there’s lots of complicated stuff,” he said.

What’s simple is the idea behind all of his team’s research: The sun is the most reliable, plentiful source of renewable energy we have. In fact, more energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour than humans use in an entire year. If we can find cheap and efficient ways to tap just a fraction of its power, we will go a long way toward finding a clean, affordable, and reliable energy source for the future.

We are all familiar with solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. As solar panel costs continue to fall, it’s been encouraging to see how they are becoming a growing source of clean energy around the world. Of course, there’s one major challenge of solar power. The sun sets each night and there are cloudy days. That’s why we need to find efficient ways to store the energy from sunlight so it’s available on demand. 

Batteries are one solution. Even better would be a solar fuel. Fuels have a much higher energy density than batteries, making it far easier to use for storage and transportation. For example, one ton of gasoline stores the same amount of energy as 60 tons of batteries. That’s why, barring a major breakthrough in battery technology, it’s hard to imagine flying from Seattle to Tokyo on a plug-in airplane. Solar Twist download

I’ve written before about the need for an energy miracle to halt climate change and provide access to electricity to millions of the poorest families who live without it. Making solar fuel would be one of those miracles. It would solve the energy storage problem for when the sun isn’t shining. And it would provide an easy-to-use power source for our existing transportation infrastructure. We could continue to drive the cars we have now. Instead of running on fossil fuels from the ground, they would be powered by fuel made from sunlight. And because it wouldn’t contribute additional greenhouses gases to the atmosphere, it would be carbon neutral. 

Imagining such a future is tantalizing. Realizing it will require a lot of hard work. No one knows if there’s a practical way to turn sunlight into fuel. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy, Nate and a group of other researchers around the U.S. are receiving research support to find out if it is possible.

We live in a time when new discoveries and innovations are so commonplace that it’s easy to take the cutting-edge research I saw at Caltech for granted. But most breakthroughs that improve our lives—from new health interventions to new clean energy ideas—get their start as government-sponsored research like Nate’s. If successful, that research leads to new innovations, that spawn new industries, that create new jobs, that spur economic growth. It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of government support in this process. Without it, human progress would not come as far as it has.

tenka-growing-plants-082616-picture1Nate and his team are still at the first stage of this process. But they have reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead. After all, turning sunlight into chemical energy is what plants do every day. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants combine sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to store solar energy in chemical bonds. At Nate’s lab, his team is working with the same ingredients. The difference is that they need to figure out how to do it even better and beat nature at its own game.

“We want to create a solar fuel inspired by what nature does, in the same way that man built aircraft inspired by birds that fly,” Nate said. “But you don’t build an airplane out of feathers. And we’re not going to build an artificial photosynthetic system out of chlorophylls and living systems, because we can do better than that.”

One of Nate’s students showed me how light can be used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen—a critical first step in the path to solar fuels. The next step would involve combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make fuels. Using current technologies, however, it is too costly to produce a fuel from sunlight. To make it cheaper, much more research needs to be done to understand the materials and systems that could create a dependable source of solar fuel.hydrogen-earth-150x150

One idea his team is working on is a kind of artificial turf made of plastic cells that could be easily rolled out to capture sunlight to make fuel. Each plastic cell would contain water, light absorbers, and a catalyst. The catalyst helps accelerate the chemical reactions so each cell can produce hydrogen or carbon-based fuels more efficiently. Unfortunately, the best catalysts are among the rarest and most expensive elements, like platinum. A key focus of Nate’s research is finding other catalysts that are not only effective and durable, but also economical.

Nate’s interest in clean energy research started during the oil crisis in the 1970s, when he waited for hours in gas lines with his dad. He says he knew then that he wanted to dedicate his life to energy research. Now, he is helping to train a new generation of scientists to help solve our world’s energy challenge. Seeing the number of young people working in Nate’s lab was inspiring. The pace of innovation for them is now much faster than ever before. “We do experiments now in a day that would once take a year or an entire Ph.D. thesis to do,” Nate said.

Still, I believe we should be doing a lot more. We need thousands of scientists following all paths that might lead us to a clean energy future. That’s why a group of investors and I recently launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund that will invest more than $1 billion in scientific discoveries that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world.

While we won’t be filling up our cars with solar fuels next week or next year, Nate’s team has already made valuable contributions to our understanding of how we might achieve this bold goal. With increased government and private sector support, we will make it possible for them to move ahead with their research at full speed.

This originally appeared on gatesnotes.com.

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Artificial Photo-Synthesis ‘Solar-Fuels’ – One Step Closer?


Artificial Photosynth extCaltech scientists, inspired by a chemical process found in leaves, have developed an electrically conductive film that could help pave the way for devices capable of harnessing sunlight to split water into hydrogen fuel.

When applied to semiconducting materials such as silicon, the film prevents rust buildup and facilitates an important chemical process in the solar-driven production of fuels such as methane or hydrogen.

“We have developed a new type of protective coating that enables a key process in the solar-driven production of fuels to be performed with record efficiency, stability, and effectiveness, and in a system that is intrinsically safe and does not produce explosive mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen,” says Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech and a coauthor of a new study, published the week of March 9 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), that describes the film.

The development could help lead to safe, efficient artificial photosynthetic systems—also called solar-fuel generators or “artificial leaves”—that replicate the natural process of photosynthesis that plants use to convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel in the form of carbohydrates, or sugars.

The artificial leaf that Lewis’ team is developing in part at Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) consists of three main components: two electrodes—a photoanode and a —and a membrane. The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules to generate oxygen gas, protons, and electrons, while the photocathode recombines the protons and electrons to form hydrogen gas. The membrane, which is typically made of plastic, keeps the two gases separate in order to eliminate any possibility of an explosion, and lets the gas be collected under pressure to safely push it into a pipeline.

George L. Argyros Professor and Professor of Chemistry Nate Lewis and postdoc Ke Sun, who together have helped develop a protective film that is rust-resistant, highly transparent, and highly catalytic. This new thin-film could help pave the …more

Scientists have tried building the electrodes out of common semiconductors such as silicon or gallium arsenide—which absorb light and are also used in solar panels—but a major problem is that these materials develop an oxide layer (that is, rust) when exposed to water.

Lewis and other scientists have experimented with creating protective coatings for the electrodes, but all previous attempts have failed for various reasons. “You want the coating to be many things: chemically compatible with the semiconductor it’s trying to protect, impermeable to water, electrically conductive, highly transparent to incoming light, and highly catalytic for the reaction to make oxygen and fuels,” says Lewis, who is also JCAP’s scientific director. “Creating a protective layer that displayed any one of these attributes would be a significant leap forward, but what we’ve now discovered is a material that can do all of these things at once.”

The team has shown that its nickel oxide film is compatible with many different kinds of semiconductor materials, including silicon, indium phosphide, and cadmium telluride. When applied to photoanodes, the nickel oxide film far exceeded the performance of other similar films—including one that Lewis’s group created just last year. That film was more complicated—it consisted of two layers versus one and used as its main ingredient titanium dioxide (TiO2, also known as titania), a naturally occurring compound that is also used to make sunscreens, toothpastes, and white paint.

“After watching the photoanodes run at record performance without any noticeable degradation for 24 hours, and then 100 hours, and then 500 hours, I knew we had done what scientists had failed to do before,” says Ke Sun, a postdoc in Lewis’s lab and the first author of the new study.

Lewis’s team developed a technique for creating the nickel oxide film that involves smashing atoms of argon into a pellet of nickel atoms at high speeds, in an oxygen-rich environment. “The nickel fragments that sputter off of the pellet react with the oxygen atoms to produce an oxidized form of nickel that gets deposited onto the semiconductor,” Lewis says.

Crucially, the team’s nickel works well in conjunction with the membrane that separates the photoanode from the photocathode and staggers the production of hydrogen and oxygen gases.

“Without a membrane, the photoanode and photocathode are close enough to each other to conduct electricity, and if you also have bubbles of highly reactive hydrogen and oxygen gases being produced in the same place at the same time, that is a recipe for disaster,” Lewis says. “With our film, you can build a safe device that will not explode, and that lasts and is efficient, all at once.”

Lewis cautions that scientists are still a long way off from developing a commercial product that can convert sunlight into fuel. Other components of the system, such as the photocathode, will also need to be perfected.

“Our team is also working on a photocathode,” Lewis says. “What we have to do is combine both of these elements together and show that the entire system works. That will not be easy, but we now have one of the missing key pieces that has eluded the field for the past half-century.”

Explore further: New method stabilizes common semiconductors for solar fuels generation

Cheap and Abundant Chemical (potassium tert butoxide) Outperforms Precious Metals Catalyst: Applications in Pharmaceuticals, Solar Cells, Pesticides and LCD’s


Caltech 54d23651c681fA team of Caltech chemists has discovered a method for producing a group of silicon-containing organic chemicals without relying on expensive precious metal catalysts. Instead, the new technique uses as a catalyst a cheap, abundant chemical that is commonly found in chemistry labs around the world—potassium tert-butoxide—to help create a host of products ranging from new medicines to advanced materials. And it turns out that the potassium salt is more effective than state-of-the-art precious metal complexes at running very challenging chemical reactions.

“We have shown for the first time that you can efficiently make carbon-silicon bonds with a safe and inexpensive catalyst based on potassium rather than ultrarare precious metals like platinum, palladium, and iridium,” says Anton Toutov, a graduate student working in the laboratory of Bob Grubbs, Caltech’s Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry. “We’re very excited because this new method is not only ‘greener’ and more efficient, but it is also thousands of times less expensive than what’s currently out there for making useful chemical building blocks. This is a technology that the chemical industry could readily adopt.”

The finding marks one of the first cases in which catalysis—the use of catalysts to make certain reactions occur faster, more readily, or at all—moves away from being a practice that is fundamentally unsustainable. While the precious metals in most catalysts are rare and could eventually run out, potassium is an abundant element on Earth.

The team describes its new “green” technique in the February 5 issue of the journal Nature. The lead authors on the paper are Toutov and Wen-bo (Boger) Liu, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech. Toutov recently won the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) grand prize for this work, in a competition held at Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute.

Caltech 54d23651c681f

A crystal dispersing a beam of light serves as a metaphor for a striking, natural chemical process that is seemingly effortless, yet efficient and powerful. Here, potassium tert-butoxide — the catalyst in the new reaction — is represented …more

“The first time I spoke about this at a conference, people were stunned,” says Grubbs, corecipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “I added three slides about this chemistry to the end of my talk, and afterward it was all anyone wanted to talk about.”

Coauthor Brian Stoltz, professor of chemistry at Caltech, says the reason for this strong response is that while the chemistry the catalyst drives is challenging, potassium tert-butoxide is so seemingly simple. The white, free-flowing powder—similar to common table salt in appearance—provides a straightforward and environmentally friendly way to run a reaction that involves replacing a carbon-hydrogen bond with a carbon-silicon bond to produce molecules known as organosilanes.

These organic molecules are of particular interest because they serve as powerful chemical building blocks for medicinal chemists to use in the creation of new pharmaceuticals. They also hold promise in the development of new materials for use in products such as LCD screens and organic solar cells, could be important in the development of new pesticides, and are being incorporated into novel medical imaging tools.

“To be able to do this type of reaction, which is one of the most-studied problems in the world of chemistry, with potassium tert-butoxide—a material that’s not precious-metal based but still catalytically active—was a total shocker,” Stoltz says.

The current project got its start a couple of years ago when coauthor Alexey Fedorov—then a postdoctoral scholar in the Grubbs lab (now at ETH Zürich)—was working on a completely different problem. He was trying to break carbon-oxygen bonds in biomass using simple silicon-containing compounds, metals, and potassium tert-butoxide, which is a common additive. During that process, he ran a control experiment—one without a metal catalyst—leaving only potassium tert-butoxide as the reagent. Remarkably, the reaction still worked. And when Toutov—who was working with Fedorov—analyzed the reaction further, he realized that in addition to the expected products, the reaction was making small amounts of organosilanes. This was unexpected since organosilanes are very challenging to produce.

“I thought that was impossible, so I went back and checked it many times,” Toutov says. “Sure enough, it checked out!”

Bolstered by the finding, Toutov refined the reaction so that it would create only a single desired organosilane in high yield under mild conditions, with hydrogen gas as the only byproduct. Then he expanded the scope of the reaction to produce industrially useful chemicals such as molecules needed for new materials and derivatives of pharmaceutical substances.

Having demonstrated the broad applicability of the reaction, Toutov teamed up with Liu from Stoltz’s group to further develop the chemistry for the synthesis of building blocks relevant to the preparation of new human medicines, a field in which Stoltz has been active for over a decade.

But before delving too deeply into additional applications, the chemists sought the assistance of Nathan Dalleska, director of the Environmental Analysis Center in the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science at Caltech to perform one more test with a mass spectrometer that geologists use to detect extremely minute quantities of metals. They were trying to detect some tiny amount of those that could be contaminating their experiments—something that might explain why they were getting these seemingly impossible results from potassium tert-butoxide alone.

“But there was nothing there,” says Stoltz. “We made our own potassium tert-butoxide and also bought it from various vendors, and yet the chemistry continued to work just the same. We had to really convince ourselves that it was true, that there were no in there. Eventually, we had to just decide to believe it.”

So far, the chemists do not know why the simple catalyst is able to drive these complex reactions. But Stoltz’s lab is part of the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, a National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation that involves 23 research groups from around the country. Through that center, the Caltech team has started working with Ken Houk’s computational chemistry group at UCLA to investigate how the chemistry works from a mechanistic standpoint.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s functioning by a mechanism that is totally different than the way a precious metal would behave,” says Stoltz. “That’s going to inspire some people, including ourselves hopefully, to think about how to use and harness that reactivity.”

Toutov says that unlike some other catalysts that stop working or become sensitive to air or water when scaled up from the single-gram scale, this new catalyst seems to be robust enough to be used at large, industrial scales. To demonstrate the industrial viability of the process, the Caltech team used the method to synthesize nearly 150 grams of a valuable organosilane—the largest amount of this chemical product that has been produced by a single catalytic reaction. The reaction required no solvent, generated hydrogen gas as the only byproduct, and proceeded at 45°C—the lowest reported temperature at which this has successfully run, to date.

“This discovery just shows how little we in fact know about chemistry,” says Stoltz. “People constantly try to tell us how mature our field is, but there is so much fundamental chemistry that we still don’t understand.”

Explore further: Single-atom gold catalysts may offer path to low-cost production of fuel and chemicals

Size matters: The importance of building small things


Size Matters id38804Strong materials, such as concrete, are usually heavy, and lightweight materials, such as rubber (for latex gloves) and paper, are usually weak and susceptible to tearing and damage. Julia R. Greer, professor of materials science and mechanics in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science, is helping to break that linkage. In Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21, Greer will explain how we can give ordinary materials superpowers. Admission is free.
Q: What do you do?
A: I’m a materials scientist, and I work with materials whose dimensions are at the nanoscale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a hair. At those dimensions, ordinary materials such as metals, ceramics, and glasses take on properties quite unlike their bulk-scale counterparts. Many materials become 10 or more times stronger. Some become damage-tolerant. Glass shatters very easily in our world, for example, but at the nanoscale, some glasses become deformable and less breakable. We’re trying to harness these so-called size effects to create “meta-materials” that display these properties at scales we can see.
We can fabricate essentially any structure we like with the help of a special instrument that is like a tabletopmicroprinter, but uses laser pulses to “write” a three-dimensional structure into a tiny droplet of a polymer. The laser “sets” the polymer into our three-dimensional design, creating a minuscule plastic scaffold. We rinse away the unset polymer and put our scaffold in another machine that essentially wraps it in a very thin, nanometers-thick ribbon of the stuff we’re actually interested in—a metal, a semiconductor, or abiocompatible material. Then we get rid of the plastic, leaving just the interwoven hollow tubular structure. The final structure is hollow, and it weighs nothing. It’s 99.9 percent air.Size Matters id38804

A fractal nanotruss made in Greer’s lab. (Image: Lucas Meza, Greer lab/Caltech)

We can even make structures nested within other structures. We recently started making hierarchical nanotrusses—trusses built from smaller trusses, like a fractal.
Q: How big can you make these things, and where might that lead us?
A: Right now, most of them are about 100 by 100 by 100 microns cubed. A micron is a millionth of a meter, so that is very small. And the unit cells, the individual building blocks, are very, very small—a few microns each. I recently asked my graduate students to create a demo big enough to be visible, so I could show it at seminars. They wrote me an object about 6 millimeters by 6 millimeters by about 100 microns tall. It took them about a week just to write the polymer, never mind the ribbon deposition and all the other steps.
The demo piece looks like a little white square from the top, until you hold it up to the light. Then a rainbow of colors play across its surface, and it looks like a fine opal. That’s because the nanolattices and the opals are both photonic crystals, which means that their unit cells are the right size to interact with light. Synthetic three-dimensional photonic crystals are relatively hard to make, but they could be extremely useful as high-speed switches for fiber-optic networks.
Our goal is to figure out a way to mass produce nanostructures that are big enough to see. The possibilities are endless. You could make a soft contact lens that can’t be torn, for example. Or a very lightweight, very safe biocompatible material that could go into someone’s body as a scaffold on which to grow cells. Or you could use semiconductors to build 3-D logic circuits. We’re working with Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science Andrei Faraon [BS ’04] to try to figure out how to simultaneously write a whole bunch of things that are all 1 centimeter by 1 centimeter.
Q: How did you get into this line of work? What got you started?
A: When I first got to Caltech, I was working on metallic nanopillars. That was my bread and butter. Nanopillars are about 50 nanometers to 1 micron in diameter, and about three times taller than their width. They were what we used to demonstrate, for example, that smaller becomes stronger—the pillars were stronger than the bulk metal by an order of magnitude, which is nothing to laugh at.
Nanopillars are awesome, but you can’t build anything out of them. And so I always wondered if I could use something like them as nano-LEGOs and construct larger objects, like a nano-Eiffel Tower. The question I asked myself was if each individual component had that very, very high strength, would the whole structure be incredibly strong? That was always in the back of my mind. Then I met some people at DARPA (Defense Advanced at HRL (formerly Hughes Research Laboratories) who were interested in some similar questions, specifically about using architecture in material design. My HRL colleagues were making microscale structures called micro-trusses, so we started a very successful DARPA-funded collaboration to make even smaller trusses with unit cells in the micron range. These structures were still far too big for my purposes, but they brought this work closer to reality.
Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech’s iTunes U site.
Source: Caltech

Read more: Size matters: The importance of building small things

A New Way to Convert Light to Electrical Energy


1-SpherePulseL_imageAbstract:
The conversion of optical power to an electrical potential is of general interest for energy applications, and is typically accomplished by optical excitation of semiconductor materials. A research team has developed a new method for this conversion, using an all-metal structure, based on the plasmon resonance in metal nanostructures.

Pasadena, CA | Posted on November 1st, 2014

 

Plasmoelectric potentials occur when metal nanostructures are excited by light at wavelengths near their resonant wavelengths, and may someday enable development of entirely new types of all-metal optoelectronic devices that can convert light into electrical energy.

This new finding could have a significant impact on the understanding of the electrochemical energy landscapes for photovoltaic, photoelectrochemical and optoelectronic devices. According to Dr. Harry Atwater, who led the study, “This work illustrates that electrical potentials can arise in metallic nanostructures in surprising ways. Although it is not clear how applications might develop from this finding, whenever you can design a optical material to produce potentials, it points toward possibilities for sensors and power converters.”

The findings are published today in the journal Science.

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http://daedalus.caltech.edu/research/plasmonics.php