Nav: Home

Scientists take strides towards entirely renewable energy

November 08, 2019

Scientists from Trinity College Dublin have taken a giant stride towards solving a riddle that would provide the world with entirely renewable, clean energy from which water would be the only waste product.

Reducing humanity's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is arguably the greatest challenge facing 21st century civilisation - especially given the ever-increasing global population and the heightened energy demands that come with it.

One beacon of hope is the idea that we could use renewable electricity to split water (H2O) to produce energy-rich hydrogen (H2), which could then be stored and used in fuel cells. This is an especially interesting prospect in a situation where wind and solar energy sources produce electricity to split water, as this would allow us to store energy for use when those renewable sources are not available.

The essential problem, however, is that water is very stable and requires a great deal of energy to break up. A particularly major hurdle to clear is the energy or "overpotential" associated with the production of oxygen, which is the bottleneck reaction in splitting water to produce H2.

Although certain elements are effective at splitting water, such as Ruthenium or Iridium (two of the so-called noble metals of the periodic table), these are prohibitively expensive for commercialisation. Other, cheaper options tend to suffer in terms of their efficiency and/or their robustness. In fact, at present, nobody has discovered catalysts that are cost-effective, highly active and robust for significant periods of time.

So, how do you solve such a riddle? Stop before you imagine lab coats, glasses, beakers and funny smells; this work was done entirely through a computer.

By bringing together chemists and theoretical physicists, the Trinity team behind the latest breakthrough combined chemistry smarts with very powerful computers to find one of the "holy grails" of catalysis.

The team, led by Professor Max García-Melchor, made a crucial discovery when investigating molecules which produce oxygen: Science had been underestimating the activity of some of the more reactive catalysts and, as a result, the dreaded "overpotential" hurdle now seems easier to clear. Furthermore, in refining a long-accepted theoretical model used to predict the efficiency of water splitting catalysts, they have made it immeasurably easier for people (or super-computers) to search for the elusive "green bullet" catalyst.

Lead author, Michael Craig, Trinity, is excited to put this insight to use. He said: "We know what we need to optimise now, so it is just a case of finding the right combinations."

The team aims to now use artificial intelligence to put a large number of earth-abundant metals and ligands (which glue them together to generate the catalysts) in a melting pot before assessing which of the near-infinite combinations yield the greatest promise.

In combination, what once looked like an empty canvas now looks more like a paint-by-numbers as the team has established fundamental principles for the design of ideal catalysts.

Professor Max García-Melchor added: "Given the increasingly pressing need to find green energy solutions it is no surprise that scientists have, for some time, been hunting for a magical catalyst that would allow us to split water electrochemically in a cost-effective, reliable way. However, it is no exaggeration to say that before now such a hunt was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. We are not over the finishing line yet, but we have significantly reduced the size of the haystack and we are convinced that artificial intelligence will help us hoover up plenty of the remaining hay."

He also stressed that: "This research is hugely exciting for a number of reasons and it would be incredible to play a role in making the world a more sustainable place. Additionally, this shows what can happen when researchers from different disciplines come together to apply their expertise to try to solve a problem that affects each and every one of us."
-end-
Professor Max García-Melchor is an Ussher Assistant Professor in Chemistry at Trinity and senior author on the landmark research that has just been published in a leading international journal, Nature Communications.

Collaborating authors include Gabriel Coulter, formerly of Trinity and now studying for a MSc at the University of Cambridge; Eoin Dolan formerly of Trinity and now completing an Erasmus Mundus joint MSc degree in Paris; Dr Joaquín Soriano-Lòpez, MSCA-Edge fellow in Trinity's School of Chemistry; Eric Mates, PhD candidate in Trinity's School of Chemistry and Professor Wolfgang Schmitt from Trinity's School of Chemistry.

The research has been supported by Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC), where the team is benefiting from 4,500,000 CPU hours at Ireland's state-of-the-art super-computer facility.

Trinity College Dublin

Related Artificial Intelligence Articles:

Artificial intelligence aids gene activation discovery
Scientists have long known that human genes are activated through instructions delivered by the precise order of our DNA.
Artificial intelligence recognizes deteriorating photoreceptors
A software based on artificial intelligence (AI), which was developed by researchers at the Eye Clinic of the University Hospital Bonn, Stanford University and University of Utah, enables the precise assessment of the progression of geographic atrophy (GA), a disease of the light sensitive retina caused by age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Classifying galaxies with artificial intelligence
Astronomers have applied artificial intelligence (AI) to ultra-wide field-of-view images of the distant Universe captured by the Subaru Telescope, and have achieved a very high accuracy for finding and classifying spiral galaxies in those images.
Using artificial intelligence to smell the roses
A pair of researchers at the University of California, Riverside, has used machine learning to understand what a chemical smells like -- a research breakthrough with potential applications in the food flavor and fragrance industries.
Artificial intelligence could revolutionize sea ice warnings
Today, large resources are used to provide vessels in the polar seas with warnings about the spread of sea ice.
A hidden history of artificial intelligence in primary care
Artificial intelligence methods are being utilized in radiology, cardiology and other medical specialty fields to quickly and accurately process large quantities of health data to improve the diagnostic and treatment power of health care teams.
Identifying light sources using artificial intelligence
Identifying sources of light plays an important role in the development of many photonic technologies, such as lidar, remote sensing, and microscopy.
Artificial intelligence could serve as backup to radiologists' eyes
Deploying artificial intelligence could help radiologists to more accurately classify lung diseases.
Reducing the carbon footprint of artificial intelligence
MIT system cuts the energy required for training and running neural networks.
Researchers rebuild the bridge between neuroscience and artificial intelligence
In an article in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers reveal that they have successfully rebuilt the bridge between experimental neuroscience and advanced artificial intelligence learning algorithms.
More Artificial Intelligence News and Artificial Intelligence Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Debbie Millman: Designing Our Lives
From prehistoric cave art to today's social media feeds, to design is to be human. This hour, designer Debbie Millman guides us through a world made and remade–and helps us design our own paths.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#574 State of the Heart
This week we focus on heart disease, heart failure, what blood pressure is and why it's bad when it's high. Host Rachelle Saunders talks with physician, clinical researcher, and writer Haider Warraich about his book "State of the Heart: Exploring the History, Science, and Future of Cardiac Disease" and the ails of our hearts.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Insomnia Line
Coronasomnia is a not-so-surprising side-effect of the global pandemic. More and more of us are having trouble falling asleep. We wanted to find a way to get inside that nighttime world, to see why people are awake and what they are thinking about. So what'd Radiolab decide to do?  Open up the phone lines and talk to you. We created an insomnia hotline and on this week's experimental episode, we stayed up all night, taking hundreds of calls, spilling secrets, and at long last, watching the sunrise peek through.   This episode was produced by Lulu Miller with Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte, Tobin Low, Sarah Qari, Molly Webster, Pat Walters, Shima Oliaee, and Jonny Moens. Want more Radiolab in your life? Sign up for our newsletter! We share our latest favorites: articles, tv shows, funny Youtube videos, chocolate chip cookie recipes, and more. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.