Conference puts light on “Holy Grail” of sustainable energy

Published : 09 Jul, 2011

Even though I’ve worked as a chemical engineer most of my life, I’m dedicated to ongoing professional development.

I’m a firm believer in remaining “current”, particularly when it comes to the latest trends and developments in environmental chemistry.

And besides that, this stuff is really interesting (for chemical engineers, anyway!).

So last December, I jumped at the chance to attend the Pacifichem 2010 International Chemical Congress.

Held every five years, this congress represents the gathering of the best and most recent cutting-edge research from the Pacific Rim countries.

More than 13,000 research papers were presented from countries including the USA, China, Japan and Australia.

There were papers being delivered across 10 fields of chemistry in 71 different lecture theaters simultaneously, so the size of this conference was impressive.

Given it would have been impossible for me to be in all different places at once, I focussed on environmental chemistry.

My absolute highlight at the conference was hearing discussions about the development of the direct conversion of water into hydrogen and oxygen using solar-powered chemical cells.

This is the “Holy Grail” of sustainable energy where sunlight converts water directly into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature and pressure.

This is an attractive way to create storable solar fuel from water.

The energy efficiency of these cells is already at 10 per cent of visible light.

Not bad when compared to plant photosynthesis at six per cent. Hydrogen is already in use as a transport fuel in new “green” vehicles.

A number of researchers around the world are focussing on this problem.

There is significant funding from the US Government as this can potentially reduce the reliance on oil as a transport fuel.

Already prototype solar cells based on this chemistry are under construction.

The leader in this field is the Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute based in North Carolina, USA, which believes this technology will be available before 2020.

This is very exciting, not just for chemical engineers, but for all humans who share this planet.