Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Oh, the humanity!
February 18, 2008 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Solar cell directly splits water for hydrogen. Thomas E. Mallouk and W. Justin Youngblood, postdoctoral fellow in chemistry, together with collaborators at Arizona State University, developed a catalyst system that, combined with a dye, can mimic the electron transfer and water oxidation processes that occur in plants during photosynthesis. They reported the results of their experiments at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today in Boston.
posted by ZenMasterThis (48 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
If this ends up being reasonably efficient, hydrogen could almost be considered a source fuel rather than just a means of energy storage/transfer.
posted by jeblis at 9:03 AM on February 18, 2008


The introduction to this article sort of implies that catalytic splitting of water solely by solar energy hasn't been achieved in the lab before but that isn't true - a dozen years ago I did my senior presentation for a chemistry degree on a similar process. While I can hope that this sort of research leads eventually to practical processes that help solve our energy problems, but this science is a long, long way from that.
posted by nanojath at 9:08 AM on February 18, 2008


have found that the catalysts conducive to separating hydrogen and oxygen are usually pretty good at putting the two gases right back together again. The folks at Penn State have now developed a process that more closely mimics the photosynthesis process in plants

From engadget
posted by jeblis at 9:25 AM on February 18, 2008


Mimics plant photosynthesis, eh? Awesome. Now if only they had a construction method that would automatically "grow" (if you will) an entire production "plant" (so to speak) such that a wide "bush" (if you follow me) of leaf-like solar collector would automatically be generated, then we could "harvest" (by analogy) the result!
posted by DU at 9:35 AM on February 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


DU Yes but converting that energy causes a lot of bad things to be released into the environment.
posted by jeblis at 10:06 AM on February 18, 2008


This is still at the proof-of-concept stage but if they can do half of what they expect it will change the world, and in a hurry.

nanojath, the article explains that the new process is several orders of magnitude more efficient than previous ones. They have made major progress on keeping the split hydrogen and oxygen from recombining on the catalyst.

DU, not only is the natural way dirtier and messier than what these guys are attempting, it's less efficient -- the article says natural photosynthesis is only 1% to 3% efficient, and they believe 10% to 15% is possible.
posted by localroger at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is good news. Any movement towards cleaner, renewable energy as dreamt of by sci-fi writers is awesome.

Plus, this means in a few years I might be able to recharge my iPod by leaving it near the window for a few minutes. If I can get my cat to share that particular patch of sunshine, anyway.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:39 AM on February 18, 2008


"Can mimic the electron transfer and water oxidation processes that occur in plants during photosynthesis" [emphasis mine] would be the most important feature of this system; photosynthesis is being invoked as an anaolgy. As far as plants are concerned, it's mostly about producing glucose (and thence cellulose) from carbon dioxide and water (with oxygen as a waste product). Here the name of the game is hydrogen from water (again with oxygen as a byproduct). They're not reinventing the wheel; they've got one that still rolls, but in a significantly different way.

If I can get my cat to share that particular patch of sunshine, anyway.

With my little monsters I'd end up with an iPod full of cat fur.
posted by hangashore at 10:45 AM on February 18, 2008


Here's the original article on ScienceDaily.com.
posted by evilangela at 10:50 AM on February 18, 2008


It is great to see that they are getting some sort of public attention for these devices, as limited as it is.

These are exactly the sorts of scientific/technological developments that can really change society for the better.

Here's hoping alternative energy research someday receives the long, long overdue funding increase it has always deserved so we can really get serious about getting these things out of the lab and into production at a much quicker rate.
posted by peppito at 11:08 AM on February 18, 2008


but does it soak up carbon dioxide?

anyway, this is cool.
posted by eustatic at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2008


Is it just me, or is using our water supply for fuel a bad idea? Aren't we already having large droughts all over the world, with more expected in the coming decades? Or am I just completely missing the way this is supposed to work?
posted by afx114 at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2008


Localroger, Could you please elaborate on how "the natural way" is "dirtier and messier"?

With regards to energy systems, I can't imagine a more balanced, conservative, and *cleanly* arrangement than a finely tuned ecosystem. I think it's a case of misplaced emphasis to assume that because we cannot quickly extract electricity from something, it's worthless. That is precisely how we got into this problem!

Attitudes such as this pervade logical reasoning. This is the Modern, Progressive stance that yet another solution in a long litany of solutions will yield incremental progress; rather then looking at the rotten foundation upon which all this reasoning is based.
posted by kuatto at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2008


# afx114, the main byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water. Besides, who says we can’t use non-potable water in these sorts of reactions?
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 11:43 AM on February 18, 2008


I dream of a time when asking if our machines are alive is as easy (and potentially meaningless) as asking if viruses are alive. I have no idea if this will ever come to pass.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:43 AM on February 18, 2008


That time will come, adamschneider, sometime before I figure out what you comment has to do with this thread or post.
posted by about_time at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


is using our water supply for fuel a bad idea?

Only if we use fresh water. We have plenty of seawater/waste water.
posted by jeblis at 11:54 AM on February 18, 2008


But does this thing work the same on sea/waste water as it does on fresh water? Would you have to filter out all the crap first?
posted by afx114 at 11:59 AM on February 18, 2008


Could you please elaborate on how "the natural way" is "dirtier and messier"?

I don't know all the details of this new process and it's byproducts, but if you take a plant and process it into energy, you end up with a a large environmental impact. Problems include carbon dioxide, irrigation, fresh water use, land destruction. Basically you have a much more complex energy cycle with a lot more steps, ingredients required and a lot more byproducts due to processing regardless of the time it takes to extract the energy.

The promise of this new process is that you go from sunlight to hydrogen with very few steps in between. Requiring less chemicals introduced and fewer harmful byproducts.
posted by jeblis at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2008


Would you have to filter out all the crap first? You may have to filter some of the big logs, but I doubt you'd have to get it to drinking water standards.
posted by jeblis at 12:09 PM on February 18, 2008


"Plants trees and algae do it."

Does this remind anyone else of the title to that book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" ?
posted by swift at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


“But does this thing work the same on sea/waste water as it does on fresh water?”

Salty water is actually better for electrolysis, as the reaction is more intense.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2008


Water wars are fought because people are hungry, not thirsty.
posted by ryanrs at 12:54 PM on February 18, 2008


Problems include carbon dioxide, irrigation, fresh water use, land destruction. Basically you have a much more complex energy cycle with a lot more steps, ingredients required and a lot more byproducts due to processing regardless of the time it takes to extract the energy.

All these dangers you mention presupposes that plant life is there to simply extract energy from it. I understand that in the context of this discussion that seems like a reasonable assumption. What I'm saying is to set aside the conventional thinking with regards to energy consumption. An ecosystem (not a field of corn), exists as an *example* of how energy needs can be met in a sustainable and balanced fashion. To the extent that we encourage healthy ecosystems, we are encouraging a sense of ecological balance within our society and personal endeavors, viz energy consumption. The two are linked.

In order to retain and encourage healthy ecosystems, we have to question our priorities with regards to energy consumption, urban sprawl, pollution, etc, etc, the list goes on and on.

I am inclined to believe that funding land trusts, and restricting all growth (urban, population) around the world can have more impact on the issues we face than building an entirely new energy infrastructure based on hydrogen. Perhaps if we weren't so busy fighting wars we could do both...
posted by kuatto at 1:03 PM on February 18, 2008


Salty water is actually better for electrolysis

I was about to say this isn't electrolysis but reading the article through again I wonder whether it does qualify or not. What are the relevance of the anode and the cathode in the general process? Obviously they say they put in energy to kickstart the process but it seems to imply that this won't be needed in future, yet if the O2 and H2 are produced at these then what exactly is happening? Is this something to do with facilitating electron movement?

“But does this thing work the same on sea/waste water as it does on fresh water?”

It's not clear from the article, it says they use a salt solution so but they don't say what kind of salt.
posted by biffa at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2008


Which is why you can not expect the clippings from your lawn to power your house and your car.

Of course, those of us who were smart enough to invest in goat and rabbit powered technologies were way ahead of this curve, and laugh at shortsighted statements like this.
posted by quin at 1:18 PM on February 18, 2008


That time will come, adamschneider, sometime before I figure out what you comment has to do with this thread or post.
posted by about_time at 1:48 PM on February 18


Well, the tech was likened by some in this thread to photosynthesis, which was followed by a comments on how machines don't grow and how nature is dirtier and messier, etc. Thanks for the mid-day snark, though. ;-)
posted by adamdschneider at 1:23 PM on February 18, 2008


An ecosystem (not a field of corn), exists as an *example* of how energy needs can be met in a sustainable and balanced fashion. To the extent that we encourage healthy ecosystems, we are encouraging a sense of ecological balance within our society and personal endeavors, viz energy consumption.

Except that we're actually talking about this as a more effective future alternative to exploitation of crops grown specifically for energy, which is something that is being increasingly developed in both Europe and the US. Crops grown like this will lead to increasing monoculturisation of marginal land and not ecosystem development. Sure, there are some ecosystems that we can draw on for energy without wiping them out, for example, woodland managment involving pollarding, but these aren't likely to scale to the levels that society wants and will act to exploit as necessary to meet demand.
posted by biffa at 1:25 PM on February 18, 2008


kuatto presupposes that plant life is there to simply extract energy from it.

Yes, you suggested that plants may be a better source of energy. Obviously plants have other uses, but we're talking about energy extraction.

we have to question our priorities with regards to energy consumption,

Using less energy would be good in either case. So we can factor that out of the discussion. The question is whether one process for extracting an equivalent amount of energy from the sun is cleaner than the other. Current processes for extracting energy from plant/animal matter are very dirty: coal, oil, wood burning, ethanol etc. You can't automatically assume natural processes are better.
posted by yahweh at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2008


"I am inclined to believe that funding land trusts, and restricting all growth (urban, population) around the world can have more impact on the issues we face than building an entirely new energy infrastructure based on hydrogen."

I am inclined to believe that magical fairies can have more impact. However, like restricting all growth around the world, magical fairies happen to be an imaginary solution.
posted by klangklangston at 2:18 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that if this achieves 10% efficiency splitting the water, then 90% of the energy is still going to be left overand it's got to be doing something. Presumably that something is going to be heating up the water - if you attached a heat exchanger to the panel as well you could collect hydrogen with 10% efficiency (or whatever they manage to achieve) and also get some more thermal energy for things like heating systems etc.
posted by silence at 2:30 PM on February 18, 2008


silence: how about solar ponds?
posted by biffa at 3:05 PM on February 18, 2008


goddamn, tom mallouk's really hitting on all cylinders lately.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2008


afx114: Is it just me, or is using our water supply for fuel a bad idea? Aren't we already having large droughts all over the world, with more expected in the coming decades? Or am I just completely missing the way this is supposed to work?

We have no shortage of water. 70% of the planet is covered with it. What we have are localized shortages of water, sometimes of the stuff itself and sometimes of water of reasonable purity.

It's not hard to transport or purify water, but it's an extra step and it takes energy and capital. It's more expensive than just pumping it out of the ground. If water shortages become worse, eventually an economic tipping point will be reached and it'll become cost-effective to transport and/or purify it.

This would mean costs will go up of course and the poor will suffer, but that's not relevant to this conversation. If you're talking about using water as a means of producing hydrogen then this is way more efficient than the alternatives, especially since the hydrogen can be made wherever and then transported instead of the water.
posted by JHarris at 4:19 PM on February 18, 2008


Yaweh: No, I'm suggesting that plants are not the solution. Read my post again. Energy from plants provide a marginal offset to the increases in demand.

From the Wikipedia

It has been estimated that "if every bushel of U.S. corn, wheat, rice and soybean were used to produce ethanol, it would only cover about 4% of U.S. energy needs on a net basis."

What I was suggesting is that, rather then focus on the destruction of natural resources (mono-culture corn, or 10000 square miles of solar cells), that we focus on preserving the natural world. If we concern ourselves with balance and sustainability with regards to natural systems, I think it is fair to say that we will see this reflect in our society and culture.

To put it another way: If you presuppose that plant life (or sunlight) exists simply so that we can extract energy from it, then there is no end to this problem of unchecked growth. In the end, this gets us nowhere because demand is limitless and growth is inexorable. Growth has to be choked.

klangklangston illustrates the severity of this problem well. It's hopeless, Humanity's inertia is carrying us all along. People don't give a shit. All we can do is try to jam sticks in the wheels.
posted by kuatto at 5:49 PM on February 18, 2008


This whole question of using "dirty" water to power this type of fuel cell intrigues me. We can already recycle "grey" water in our gardens. Who's to say that we can't use "black" water in a cell like this, and as we burn the hydrogen produce pure water which we use a simple mechanical process to return to potability. The resulting residue from the black water would be more easy to manipulate and render inert, it seems to me, after the useable water was pulled from it.

OT to the thread but... On the subject of water shortages; we're having systemic water problems across the globe. Here in the midwest, for example, we'd been running at drought levels for the past decade (or more)... and I believe that last year's near-record precipitation amounts, compounded with this winter's record breaking snowfalls we may see flood conditions well beyond the return-from-drought conditions that we were expecting... I am, admittedly, worried.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 6:47 PM on February 18, 2008


"To put it another way: If you presuppose that plant life (or sunlight) exists simply so that we can extract energy from it, then there is no end to this problem of unchecked growth. In the end, this gets us nowhere because demand is limitless and growth is inexorable. Growth has to be choked.

klangklangston illustrates the severity of this problem well. It's hopeless, Humanity's inertia is carrying us all along. People don't give a shit. All we can do is try to jam sticks in the wheels."

On behalf of all of those in third-world countries, struggling with endemic poverty, disease and despair—fuck you.

You want to "jam sticks in the wheels" of development, rather than working for just, equitable and sustainable development? Get off of the internet, hypocrite, and go live in the desert, humping dirtpiles while you waste away.

Because otherwise you're a smug fucking parasite determining that some people don't deserve the standard of living that you're currently enjoying, due mostly to accidents of geography.
posted by klangklangston at 7:37 PM on February 18, 2008


Can't tell if this is related, BlackLightPower.
posted by nickyskye at 7:38 PM on February 18, 2008


Can't tell if this is related, BlackLightPower.

From what I read, it isn't.

The link above is about pretty well tested materials that have been studied (but are still under development) for about 10-15 years (probably more) by government, academic and commerical labs.

If you look into it, "BlackLightPower" leads to a possible quack.
posted by peppito at 8:18 PM on February 18, 2008


klangklangston you seem to be very emotionally involved in this issue, which I think is remarkable. Please note the distinction between growth and development. I'm talking about the former. I have nothing against positive change and development anywhere in the world.

What, I'm asserting is that unless we address the issue of growth, that is growth in the "size" sense of the word: population, consumption of natural resources etc, until this happens questions of sustainability and poverty will languish. Growth is not sustainable ever in the ultimate sense. If it were, then in a million years we would be shoulder to shoulder from here to Alpha Centauri.

We can stop growth now or let the course of future events determine when this roller-coaster ride slows down. It will be more pleasant I believe if we do it now.

Yes, of course I think that people, especially Americans, do not deserve the amount of energy they consume. That amount is disproportionate to need in every way. Perhaps if Americans and other industrialized nations didn't feel like they had the right to burn every resource available, people all over the world would be in better shape, who knows. The simple fact is, liter for liter we are burning more than our share. Cheap energy is driving this madness.

So yes, throw a stick in the wheels, if needs be, but something has to change. Or we will *all* be humping dirt in about 500 years when our house of cards comes crashing down. As the Clash put it:

On the great ship of progress
The crew can't find the brake


We need to find a brake, anything will do.

So, I'll stick to my original thesis: There is already a sustainable system for collecting and distributing energy, and it has been around for a billion+ years. It's time we picked up a clue already. Let's improve everyone's quality of life by allowing our systems of consumption to arrive at a balance. equilibrium. If we can come into balance with nature, humans can have another billion years on this planet.
posted by kuatto at 10:27 PM on February 18, 2008


The only reliable way to choke growth is to stop population growth. Have kids, planning on having kids? Then you're way more of a problem then I am.
posted by jeblis at 10:56 PM on February 18, 2008


There is already a sustainable system for collecting and distributing energy

What's this magic system you speak of? I still bet this source of energy coupled with this choking you speak of would be better than a plant cycle coupled with choking.
posted by jeblis at 11:01 PM on February 18, 2008


whuza?
posted by kuatto at 1:43 AM on February 19, 2008


I've heard that a major obstacle to hydrogen becoming a widely-used energy source is the platinum required to catalyze the reaction. Is this an engineering problem or a physics problem?
posted by ben242 at 10:23 AM on February 19, 2008


I've heard that a major obstacle to hydrogen becoming a widely-used energy source is the platinum required to catalyze the reaction.

Good news: in the system announced by Mallouk and coworkers, the active metal is iridium (actually, an iridium oxide/organic dye combination deposited on a titanium oxide surface).

Bad news: iridium is rarer than platinum, thus is more expensive.

Good news: you'd use less iridium, since you're dispersing iridium-oxide/dye-molecule "islands" over a titanium dioxide surface (rather than a pure-platinum electrode surface).

But the "proof-of-concept" label that the researchers have hung on this system means that the final (working?) device may not be based on iridium at all. Subsequent generations may feature different metals (preferably cheaper ones that still afford a range of oxidation states), dye molecules, or even surface substrate. Chemists love a challenge, especially one with this kind of potential payoff.
posted by hangashore at 11:34 AM on February 19, 2008


Ah, you mean use of hydrogen as a fuel, not its production (damn my lack of reading comprehension).
posted by hangashore at 11:53 AM on February 19, 2008


"What, I'm asserting is that unless we address the issue of growth, that is growth in the "size" sense of the word: population, consumption of natural resources etc, until this happens questions of sustainability and poverty will languish. Growth is not sustainable ever in the ultimate sense. If it were, then in a million years we would be shoulder to shoulder from here to Alpha Centauri."

Hi there, Malthus.

If growth isn't ultimately sustainable ever, you should talk to our ever-expanding universe.

Now that we're moving away from idiotic blanket statements, it's obvious that some growth is sustainable, some growth isn't.

"Yes, of course I think that people, especially Americans, do not deserve the amount of energy they consume. That amount is disproportionate to need in every way. Perhaps if Americans and other industrialized nations didn't feel like they had the right to burn every resource available, people all over the world would be in better shape, who knows. The simple fact is, liter for liter we are burning more than our share. Cheap energy is driving this madness."

This is a question of sustainable growth, not of growth itself. Further, your answer of simply restricting the amount of energy available has never once been shown to be effective, and is easily rejected by anyone who wants to, at that moment, expend some energy. I see that you haven't stepped away from your computer, though this argument is about as inessential as imaginable.

"So yes, throw a stick in the wheels, if needs be, but something has to change. Or we will *all* be humping dirt in about 500 years when our house of cards comes crashing down. As the Clash put it:"

Bullshit. First reason—we have no way of accurately predicting how human culture will change in 500 years. Malthus was only some 300 or so years prior, and he's been wrong both on time scale and on eventual effects of growth.

Second reason to dismiss that train of thought—I don't know anyone who's living in 500 years. I feel very little impetus to change my behaviors for people that far removed from my life. Do I think we're screwing things up for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren? Sure, and I have no problem working to ameliorate that. Some mythical human 500 years from now? Fuck 'em.

Third reason—quoting Clash lyrics? Fuck, man, keep that shit to your undergrad papers.

"So, I'll stick to my original thesis: There is already a sustainable system for collecting and distributing energy, and it has been around for a billion+ years. It's time we picked up a clue already. Let's improve everyone's quality of life by allowing our systems of consumption to arrive at a balance. equilibrium. If we can come into balance with nature, humans can have another billion years on this planet."

Your model is fucking photosynthesis? Go live in the fucking woods. I'm a tool-using primate, and I'm going to try to get the most benefit out of my environment without permanently damaging it. Your Malthus-meets-Luddite hippy fantasy has no place in any serious policy discussion, as it pre-supposes an abandonment of all civilization in order to preempt your nihilistic fantasies of life a billion years from now.
posted by klangklangston at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2008


Some mythical human 500 years from now? Fuck 'em.

Like I said, your attitude readily demonstrates how hopeless this problem appears.

Secondly, If you're using the analogy of the expansion of the universe as a justification for eternal growth in human civilization, well shit, I guess I have nothing to say to that.

Your model is fucking photosynthesis? Go live in the fucking woods. I'm a tool-using primate, and I'm going to try to get the most benefit out of my environment without permanently damaging it.

My model is not photosynthesis. Rather than formulating straw men that you knock down, I urge you to seriously consider what others have written. Sometimes there is more to what someone writes, than the impressions that are created in your skull. PS: what woods shall I live in? Eastern Siberia? The arctic circle of Canada? There's not too many left where I could legally do so...

Your Malthus-meets-Luddite hippy fantasy has no place in any serious policy discussion, as it pre-supposes an abandonment of all civilization in order to preempt your nihilistic fantasies of life a billion years from now.

I'm not talking about abandoning civilization, that's something you have brought up. I'm not talking about giving up hospitals or steady food production etc.

I am talking about forging a new society; one that exists in balance with the natural world with regards to all measures of consumption. I'm talking about giving up the attitude that says "growth is good" and replacing it with "balance is good". I think it's fair to say that if there is more resources for everyone to enjoy, quality of life will go up. It makes no sense to let consumption reign over us all.

I am talking about examining a future that extends out indefinitely. If you don't agree, that's fine.
posted by kuatto at 9:55 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


« Older Get me a jury and show me how you can say "in July...  |  Alain Robbe-Grillet, French au... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments