Looking for cheaper solutions

The two basic processes involved into the transformation of sun light energy into chemical energy. Credit:

Energy harvesting remains, one of the big challenges facing humanity for the coming decades. And no silver bullet is in sight. 

However scientists and researchers keep making tiny steps on many trails for better harvesting energy at lower and lower cost. And some keep using Nature as a source of inspiration.

Leaves are great energy harvesters. I pasted a number of news over the last five years, some indicating new understanding at the quantum level of the very complex process leading to the transformation of photons into electrons and the mechanisms set in motion by these to transform electrical energy into chemical energy (glucose).

Other news are related to mimicking those natural processes to replicate them artificially and harvest sun light more efficiently than what has been achieved so far by catalytic production of hydrogen.

This is the case with the result of the work carried out at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US.

What the researchers have managed is to replace platinum with cobalt in the catalytic  reaction. The resulting reaction is not as efficient in terms of production as the one using platinum but cobalt is so much cheaper that the overall efficiency, once taking into account economic aspects is greater.

The cobalt has already been tried as a catalytic element to associate to a chromophore (a molecule that can interact with the incoming light beams) but the production of hydrogen stopped almost immediately. The Argonne researchers have developed a special organic ring (made by carbon atoms) surrounding the cobalt atom. This does not decrease the catalytic effect of the cobalt and avoid the stopping of the hydrogen generation process. The insight gained by these experiments have clarified the way electrons "behave" and now the researchers will apply this knowledge to try other catalysts, specifically nickel and iron, to keep the cost down and increase the yield, approaching the one of platinum.

I decided to post this news because I feel it is important to notice how innovation does not necessarily derives from creating something that is more performant, sometimes it is about creating something that is more "affordable". And it takes as much skill and ingenuity to the the latter as to do the former.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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