Beating nature to save the planet

It’s been a while since I blogged here – apologies. I haven’t been neglecting chemistry though – far from it. I’ve been ferreting away on a feature article, just out in Nature this week.

It’s all about trying to find ways to copy the processes in photosynthesis to split water and produce a fuel – hydrogen. Yes yes, I know it is already possible to split water, but the latests efforts have a longer-term goal of finding sustainable, friendly materials to do the job. And it is a lot harder than it might sound.

Nature uses catalysts to drive complex multielectron processes, but exactly what the molecular nature of these catalysts are isn’t known. So trying to directly copy them is challenging. And finding a completely different system that works as well, nay, better, is harder still.

A recent paper in Angewandte Chemie has a catalyst that can perform half the job, and impressive it is too, working as it does at room temperature and with reasonable turnovers. But still, it is a tetra ruthenium compound. Not likely to come in as an economic competitor to fossil fuels, unfortunately.

There will be a session at the ACS, organised by UCLA graduate students, called NanoPOWER that will likely address many of the challenges remaining for power, and fuel production. I’m hoping to be there to see what alternatives chemists can offer.