Molecular catalyzer breakthrough aims to boost the uptake of solar energy

April 13, 2012 // By Paul Buckley
Researchers from the Department of Chemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, have constructed a molecular catalyzer that rapidly oxidizes water to oxygen which could prove critical for the future uptake of solar energy.

The KTH scientists claim to be the first to reach speeds similar to those is nature’s own photosynthesis. The research findings play a critical role for the future use of solar energy and other renewable energy sources.

Researchers all over the world, including the US, Japan, and the EU, have been focusing for more than 30 years on refining an artificial form of photosynthesis. The results have varied, but above all researchers have not succeeded in creating a sufficiently rapid solar-driven catalyzer for oxidizing water.

“Speed has been the main problem, the bottleneck, when it comes to creating perfect artificial photosynthesis,” explained Licheng Sun, professor of organic chemistry at KTH.

The Swedish research group has now imitated natural photosynthesis and thereby succeeded in creating a molecular catalyzer that approaches the speed of photosynthesis in nature. The speed with which natural photosynthesis does its job is about 100 to 400 turnovers per seconds. The KTH technology has reached more than 300 turnovers per seconds with their artificial photosynthesis.

“This is clearly a world record, and a breakthrough regarding a molecular catalyzer in artificial photosynthesis,” said Professor Sun.  “This speed makes it possible in the future to create large-scale facilities for producing hydrogen in the Sahara, where there’s an abundance of sunshine. Or to attain much more efficient solar energy conversion to electricity, combining this with traditional solar cells, than is possible today”.

“I’m convinced that it will be possible in ten years to produce technology based on this type of research that is sufficiently cheap to compete with carbon-based fuels. This explains why Barack Obama is investing billions of dollars in this type of research,” commented Professor Sun.

The research pursued by Licheng Sun and his colleagues is funded by the Wallenberg Foundation and the Swedish Energy Agency. They collaborate with researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University, and, together with Professor Lars Kloo at KTH, they run a joint research