Water could be one of the fuels we’ll be using in the future

In a mere two years, researchers in the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) Department of Energy have increased the known number of materials that have the possibility of usage as solar fuels twofold – and water is one of them.

The molecular foundry

The Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab. Photo credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley La

Stemming from inquiries born out a desire to generate clean energy and hasten the finding of commercially workable fuel, solar fuels are constructed out of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water, thus replacing fossil fuels, coal, and oil. Research is still ongoing, but splitting water to produce hydrogen is feasible and possible.

Composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, when the hydrogen atoms are extricated from the water molecule, they can be rejoined to forge immensely incendiary hydrogen gas. When mixed with carbon dioxide (CO2), a renewable and plentiful energy source known as hydrocarbon fuel is formed.

The challenge, however, is that when exposed to sunlight, water molecules do not simply break down – there would be more land mass and less oceans on Earth if that were the case. In order to produce the solar fuels, the water would require a solar-powered impetus. To date, researchers are still attempting to cultivate cost-efficient materials that would achieve the essential chemistry needed with the use of visible light as a source of energy, known as “photoanode” materials.

Over the last forty years, scientists have pinpointed just 16 of these materials, though recently, another 12 have been uncovered.