Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have provided a theoretical solution to the enigma that would provide clean, green and completely renewable energy of which water would be the only waste product.
Reducing humanity’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is arguably the greatest challenge facing 21st century civilization, especially given the world’s growing population and the increased energy demands it entails.
A beacon of hope is the idea that we could use renewable electricity to divide water (H2O) to produce energy-rich hydrogen (H2), which could then be stored and used in fuel cells.
However, the essential problem is that water is very stable and requires a lot of energy to break.
By bringing together theoretical chemists and physicists, Trinity’s team combined chemical intelligence with supercomputers to find one of the “holy grails” of catalysis.
The team, led by Professor Max García-Melchor, made a crucial discovery by investigating the molecules that produce oxygen: science had underestimated the activity of some of the most reactive catalysts and, as a result, the feared “overpotential” obstacle now seems easier to overcome.
In addition, by refining a theoretical model long accepted for predicting the efficiency of water division catalysts, they have made it much easier for people (or supercomputers) to find the ultimate slippery catalyst for completely renewable energy.
“We know what we need to optimize now, so it’s just a case of finding the right combinations,” said lead author Michael Craig, who points to the use of artificial intelligence to assess which of the almost infinite combinations produces the greatest promise.
In combination, what once looked like an empty canvas now looks more like a painting by numbers, as the team has established fundamental principles for the design of ideal catalysts.
Professor Max García-Melchor added: “Given the increasingly pressing need to find green energy solutions, it is not surprising that scientists have for some time been looking for a magic catalyst that will allow us to divide water electrochemically in a cost effective manner.
“However, it is no exaggeration to say that this search was something similar to looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re not there yet, but we’ve significantly reduced the size of the haystack and we’re convinced that artificial intelligence will help us aspirate a lot of remaining hay.
The study is published in Nature Communications.