Scientists home in on recipe for entirely renewable energy

Scientists from Trinity are homing in on a recipe that would enable the future production of entirely renewable, clean energy from which water would be the only waste product. Using their expertise in chemistry, theoretical physics and artificial intelligence, the team is now fine-tuning the recipe with the genuine belief that the seemingly impossible will one day be reality. Initial work in this area, reported just under two years ago, yielded promise. That promise has now been amplified significantly in the exciting work just published in leading journal, Cell Reports Physical Science.

Energy for a song – the theory, and the problem

Reducing humanity’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is arguably the greatest challenge facing 21stcentury civilisation – especially given the increasing global population and the heightened energy demands that come with it.

One beacon of hope is the idea that we could use renewable electricity to split water (H2O) to produce green, energy-rich hydrogen (H2), which could then be stored and used in fuel cells. This is an especially interesting prospect in a situation where wind and solar energy sources produce electricity to split water, as this would allow us to store energy for use when those renewable sources are not available.

The essential problem, however, is that water is very stable and requires a great deal of energy to break up; there is no point using much more energy than you get back from such an effort. A particularly major hurdle to clear is this “overpotential” associated with the production of oxygen, which is the bottleneck reaction in splitting water to produce H2.

Although certain elements are effective at splitting water, such as Ruthenium or Iridium, these are prohibitively expensive and scarce for global commercialisation. Other, cheaper options tend to suffer in terms of their efficiency and/or their robustness. In fact, at present, nobody has discovered catalysts that are cost-effective and robust for significant periods of time. So, how do you solve such a riddle? Stop before you imagine lab coats, glasses, beakers and funny smells; this work was done entirely through a computer.

By bringing together chemists and theoretical physicists, the Trinity team behind the latest breakthrough combined chemistry smarts with very powerful computers to find one of the “holy grails” of catalysis.

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