This Week's Herman Trend Alert

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  The Herman Trend Alert

April 28, 2010

Another First Step

From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) comes a breakthrough that is certainly a first step in artificially producing hydrogen reserves. Energy companies could then use these reserves to generate electricity or even produce liquid fuels for transportation.

Using sunlight, MIT researchers have created a catalyst solution that splits water into its two atomic components---hydrogen and oxygen. Imitating photosynthesis in plants, the researchers engineered M13, a simple, harmless virus that assists in the separation process.

In this process, the hydrogen atoms in the water are actually split into their component protons and electrons. Within two years, the team hopes to develop a new process that would combine these components back into hydrogen that could be stored.

Other researchers had already developed different systems that use electricity to split water molecules. As the team explained in their article published in the journal "Nature Nanotechnology" (www.nature.com), the difference is that their system, based on biology, uses sunlight, rather than electricity, to power the reaction.

The approach that proved the best was to mimic the processes that take place in plants, rather than simply borrowing their components and re-adapt them like others had done before. "In plants, chlorophyll absorbs sunlight while catalysts promote the water-splitting reaction." The team engineered a wire-like, bacterial virus that efficiently splits the oxygen from water molecules.

Acting as the chlorophyll the virus captures light, then, acting like a wire, transfers the energy down its length. The viruses' wire-like structure also allows the other ingredients to line up in such a way that it drastically improves the system's efficiency.

To be competitive with solar power, the new system must be at least 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis. Moreover, the system must be able to repeat the reaction almost indefinitely, as well as use cheaper materials. MIT has clearly accomplished the first step.

Sometimes we forget the importance of pure science in our technological advancement. Support for research like MIT's will be critical to US remaining competitive. More importantly, our support of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects will be important, if we are to have the people to conduct this research.


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