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Caltech scientists awarded $20 million to 'Power the Planet'

PASADENA, Calif.--In the dreams of Harry Gray, Beckman Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, the future energy needs of the world are met with solar-fuel power plants. Now, a $20 million award from the Chemical Bonding Center (CBC), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemistry program, will help bring this dream one step closer to reality.

In 2005, NSF granted three Phase I CBC awards. Gray formed a group of Caltech and MIT scientists who spent the $1.5 million and three years of Phase I conducting initial research and establishing public outreach plans for their idea.

Of the three Phase I projects, Caltech's is the only one to advance to Phase II, a $20 million, five-year extension. "We have added outstanding investigators from many other institutions to our Caltech-MIT team in order to ramp up our efforts in Phase II of the 21st century grand challenge to make solar fuels using materials made from Earth-abundant elements," says Gray.

In Phase I, the Caltech-MIT alliance, called "Powering the Planet," proposed to develop nanoscale materials to make fuel from sunlight and water. They designed a nanorod-catalyst water splitter that incorporates a membrane to separate the oxygen- and hydrogen-making parts of the system.

Nathan Lewis, Caltech's Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and chemist Bruce Brunschwig, a Member of Caltech's Beckman Institute (BI) and Director of the Materials Resource Center for the BI, headed a group of students and postdocs who began working on a silicon nanorod-studded plastic sheet to harvest sunlight. The hydrogen-making catalyst team was headed by Gray, Jay Winkler (a Caltech faculty associate in chemistry), and Jonas Peters (a former Caltech chemistry professor now at MIT). Research with the goal of finding efficient catalysts for the oxidation of water to oxygen was led by MIT scientists Dan Nocera, a former graduate student of Gray's, and Christopher Cummins.

With a conceptual design in place, and with promising results in all three investigation areas, the alliance expanded--18 senior researchers at 12 institutions signed on to compete for Phase II of the CBC award and participate in testing and refining the nanoscale water-splitting device.

Luis Echegoyen, Director of the NSF Division of Chemistry, says, "The Division of Chemistry is pleased and excited to establish this new CBC devoted to elucidating some basic science aspects of solar energy research. This center and its excellent team of researchers will enable NSF to partner with the scientific community to explore fundamental aspects of solar-driven splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen."

The CBC Program is designed to support the formation of centers that can address long-term, high-risk, and high-impact basic chemical research problems. The centers are expected to be responsive to rapidly emerging opportunities and make full use of cyberinfrastructure to enhance collaborations.

"We are excited about our prospects, as we are lucky to have a very talented and dedicated group of students and postdocs who are ready and able to tackle the fundamental chemistry problems that must be solved before it will be feasible to produce clean solar fuels on a large scale," Gray adds. The Phase II award may be extended for an additional five years.


Contact: Kathy Svitil
California Institute of Technology

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