MIT’s Dan Nocera (soon to be Harvard’s) gave a seminar in our department about a year and a half ago, and I heard him speak again in ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri’s ”Presidential Symposium on Catalysis” at the Spring national meeting in San Diego. The chemistry he described is a beautiful example of how fundamental research can potentially impact the lives of billions of people. Dan and his research group have discovered what appears to be an inexpensive, self-healing, air-tolerant catalytic system to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. We have seen before grand announcements about photocatalytic water-splitting systems, but this one appears not to suffer the fatal flaws of the others – requirement of pure water, expensive ingredients, and short duty cycles. David Owen’s article in The New Yorker gives a nice, layman-level explanation of what is going on, including the limitations of this approach. Because the energy density of sunlight is, at best, only about 1 kW/m2 for a few hours per day, a modest-sized collector would generate far less than a typical first-world family consumes, but the same technology could raise the standard of living of the tropical or semi-tropical third world by factors of ten. A more technical description of the chemistry can be found in “A Self-Healing Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst”, J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2009, 131 (11), pp 3838–3839, or “The Artificial Leaf”, Acc. Chem. Res., 2012, 45 (5), pp 767–776 and a more detailed version of how this might fit into a home application was published in “The Chemistry of Personalized Solar Energy” Inorg. Chem., 2009, 48 (21), pp 10001–10017. The prospects could hardly be more monumental.
David Owen, The New Yorker, p. 68