What are critical problems in alternative energy research? How does modeling play a role in bringing us closer to answers?
A recent review article on this topic by long-time associate Prof. Richard Catlow, et. al, caught my attention. Readers of this blog will be familiar with our many posts pertaining to 'green chemistry,' sustainable solutions, and the like. Last month, Dr. Misbah Sarwar of Johnson Matthey was featured in a blog and delivered a webinar on the development of improved fuel cell catalysts. Dr. Michael Doyle has written a series on sustainability. Drs. Subramanian and Goldbeck-Wood have also blogged on these topics, as have I. All of us share a desire to use resources more responsibly and to ensure the long-term viability of our ecosphere. This will require the development of energy sources that are inexpensive, renewable, non-polluting, and CO2 neutral. Prof. Catlow provides an excellent overview on the applications of molecular modeling to R&D in this area. Read the paper for a very comprehensive set of research problems and case studies, but here are a few of the high points.
- Hydrogen production. We hear a lot about the "hydrogen economy," but where is all this hydrogen going to come from? Catlow's review discusses the generation of hydrogen from water. Research challenges include developing photocatalysts capable of splitting water using sunlight.
- Hydrogen storage. Once you've created the hydrogen, you need to carry it around. Transporting H2 as a compressed gas is risky, so most solutions involve storing it intercalated in a solid material. LiBH4 is a prototypical example of a material that can reversibly store and release H2, but the process is too slow to be practical.
- Light absorption and emission. Solar cells hold particular appeal, because they produce electricity while just sitting there (at least in a place like San Diego; I'm not so sure about Seattle). One still needs to improve conversion efficiency and worry about manufacturing cost, ease of deployment, and stability )with respect to weathering, defects, aging, and so forth).
- Energy storage and conversion. Fuel cells and batteries provide mobile electrical power for items as small as hand-held devices or as large as automobiles. Catlow and co-workers discussed solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) in their paper.
The basic idea with modeling, remember, is that we can test a lot of materials for less cost and in less time than with experiment alone. Modeling can help you find materials with the optimal band gaps for capture generation of photoelectric energy. It can tell us the thermodynamic stability of these new materials: can we actually make them and will they stick around before decomposing.
Simulation might not hit a home run every time, but if you can screen out, say, 70% of the bad leads, you've saved a lot of time and money. And if you're interested in saving the planet, isn't it great if you can do it using less resources?
Check out some of my favorite resources on alternative energy, green chemistry, and climate change.