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UVA research helps clarify path to renewable energy

Yuke Li

How do we feed the energy demands of the future? UVA chemistry department researchers Sen Zhang and T. Brent Gunnoe and their teams have taken us closer to reaping the potential of our best renewable energy resource: the sun. As Gunnoe explains, one significant challenge to implementing solar power on a large scale is finding a way to store the captured energy. Using sunlight to make hydrogen fuel by splitting water into its component parts—hydrogen and oxygen—is one of the most promising possibilities. But the current technology for making hydrogen fuel “is just terribly inadequate,” Gunnoe says. Among other problems, the common catalyst for the process involves rare precious metals. 

Zhang’s lab, however, collaborating with Gunnoe’s group, has innovated a new approach, using cobalt and titanium, which are relatively abundant. The precision involved makes the advance particularly significant; the researchers are able to control and understand the catalytic reaction at an atomic level. And, Gunnoe says, while no single discovery will enable scaled use of solar energy, this work is an important step forward in understanding how to design materials to convert sunlight into hydrogen or other benign, renewable “green” fuels.