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Making Fuel from Water Using Sunlight

“Nearly all the energy we use on this planet starts out as sunlight that plants use to knit chemical bonds. Now, for the first time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have created a potentially cheap, practical artificial leaf that does much the same thing—providing a potentially limitless source of energy that’s easy to tap.

The new device is a silicon wafer about the shape and size of a playing card coated on either side with two different catalysts. The silicon absorbs sunlight and passes that energy to the catalysts to split water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is a fuel that can be either burned or used in a fuel cell to create electricity, reforming water in either case. This means that in theory, anyone with access to water can use it to create a cheap, clean, and available source of fuel.

“It’s spectacular,” says Robert Grubbs, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who saw the presentation here yesterday at the biannual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “There’s still obviously a long way to go” to make the new device into a rugged, real-world technology, Grubbs says. But the approach is important because its potential low cost could make it widely available. It “has a chance of being scalable,” Grubbs says.”

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