New Tools Let Chemistry Solve the Energy Crisis

When I went to college, back in the 1970s, chemistry was sort of a backwater.

Engineering was where it was at. Gordon Moore was a chemistry major who became an electronics engineer. The President of my alma mater, Norman Hackerman, was a chemist, but made his name as an administrator.

What first made chemistry hot again, in the 1980s, was a multi-disciplinary approach. Chemists teamed with biologists, electrical engineers and computer programmers to expand the theory of the possible. Things like quantum dots and fullerenes emerged from that research. Brookhaven National Lab scientists have recently developed a process to pair them and improve solar panels.

Today we have new tools to help build breakthroughs, like the synchroton, a particle accelerator that can be as small as 30 meters around or as large as CERN Hadron collider in Switzerland.

A mid-sized synchrotron, the 206 meter in circumference Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, commissioned just five years ago, is now being credited with an even more exciting discovery, a manganese-based catalyst called Birnessite that can split water with sunlight to create cheap hydrogen fuel.

The research, published in Nature Chemistry, describes how the process works in plants, taking apart the process and finding that the cycling of manganese among oxidation states is at the heart of it.

Leone Spiccia of Monash University explained:

“When an electrical voltage is applied to the cell, it splits water into hydrogen and oxygen and when the researchers carefully examined the catalyst as it was working, using advanced spectroscopic methods, they found that it had decomposed into a much simpler material called birnessite, well-known to geologists as a black stain on many rocks.”

The key phrase is “as it was working.” New spectroscopic methods were needed to examine chemical processes as they occurred and uncovered what was actually happening at the molecular level.

The Internet is a great tool for disseminating information among scientists, and computers are great tools for analyzing data, but it’s tools like the synchrotron that, when combined with trained minds and all this computing power, are making the big breakthroughs possible.

Great minds, their power multiplied by networked computing, can have their capabilities multiplied still further when they have the right tools to do research. When the three are combined, anything is possible, especially when it comes to harvesting the energy abundance that is all around us.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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