Copper nanowires: Future Energy Solution

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Copper nanowires offer an efficient, inexpensive approach to solar energy harvesting

Copper adorns the Statue of Liberty, makes sturdy, affordable wiring, and helps our bodies absorb iron. Now, researchers at Duke University would like to use copper to transform sunlight and water into a chemical fuel.
Converting solar energy into storable fuel remains one of the greatest challenges of modern chemistry. One of the ways chemists have tried to capture the power of the sun is through water splitting, in which the atoms of H2O are broken apart so the hydrogen may be collected and used as fuel. Plants do this naturally through photosynthesis, and for half a century, scientists have tried to recreate that process by tinkering with chemical catalysts jumpstarted by sunlight.Indium tin oxide (ITO) is one material they’ve commonly tried to use. Researchers prefer it for its transparency—which allows sunlight to pass through and trigger the water-splitting reactions—and its ability to conduct electricity. But ITO is far from an ideal material.”Indium is not very abundant,” said Ben Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke University. “It is similar in abundance to silver in the earth’s crust.” As a result, solar fuel cells using ITO will likely remain expensive and uncompetitive with conventional energy sources like coal and natural gas, he said.Wiley’s lab has created something they hope can replace ITO: copper nanowires fused in a see-through film. The team—including two postdoctoral researchers, a graduate student, and a former graduate student from Duke—published their new approach last month in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.

Copper promises cheaper, sturdier fuel cells
The copper nanowires, seen here with a nickel coating, can split water molecules under the power of sunlight. Credit: Zuofeng Chen

Copper is 1000 times more plentiful and 100 times less expensive than indium. Copper nanowire catalysts also cost less to produce than their ITO counterparts because they can be “printed” on pieces of glass or plastic in a liquid ink form, using a machine that functions much like a printing press. ITO production, by contrast, requires large, sequential chambers of pumps and vacuums that deposit a thin layer of indium atoms at a far slower rate.The copper nanowire films consist of networks of microscopic metal rods, the properties and applications of which Wiley’s lab has studied for years. The nanowires provide a  for catalyzing chemistry, and Wiley’s team experimented with coating them in either cobalt or nickel—metals that serve as the actual chemical catalyst. Even with a coat of cobalt or nickel, the nanowire films allow nearly seven times more sunlight to pass through than ITO. The films are also flexible, leading Wiley to imagine the completed fuel cells one day being attached to backpacks or cars.

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Comments (2)

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    Lonny Eachus



    All of your premises are in error.

    First, elemental nickel is insoluble in water. So much for the “tremendous solvent” idea. (Water IS a tremendous solvent… of some things. Nickel in not one of them.)

    Second, this is not about “free” energy. It’s about making use of ambient energy. Those are two very, very different things.

    Third, where do you get the “low grade” hydrogen idea? When you split water, you get H and O. Not H + something or maybe O + something else. It’s just H and O. You would actually have to ADD SOMETHING to make the hydrogen “low grade”.

    And since they don’t appear to be proposing to add anything, your assertion that it would be “low grade” hydrogen has no basis in fact.

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    Another [b]GRANT FUND SCIENCE HOAX[/b]

    What is unmentioned it that water is a tremendous solvent and that to be operational over any time frame would require Reverse Osmosis level feedstock to produce a low grade Hydrogen fuel. There is NO free energy and this scheme is dubious at best.

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