Taking a leaf from nature 

Published on : 08-Feb-2011

NTU's new Solar Fuels Lab - the first in Asia - mimics photosynthesis to turn water into fuel 

Scientists in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have been inspired by nature to recreate an energy-producing process that takes place in plants – to produce hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight. When perfected, this “artificial leaf” technology can reduce dependence on crude oil and help to ease problems caused by global warming and climate change.
The new Solar Fuels Laboratory at NTU aims to create efficient and sustainable sources of solar fuel by developing a device that can extract large amounts of hydrogen from water using sunlight. Current technology requires huge amounts of energy to draw minute amounts of hydrogen from water which makes it commercially unviable. NTU is confident of finding a solution to this.

“Nature has lots of wonderful ways to renew itself. We can learn a lot from Nature, if we look hard enough, to find sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Inspired by the way leaves use sunlight to produce energy, we can mimic nature and perfect water-splitting technology. This will allow for the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. We can then convert solar energy into hydrogen in large quantities in a clean and sustainable manner,” explained Professor Bertil Andersson, NTU’s President-Designate, an internationally-renowned biochemist.

Professor Andersson himself is a pioneer in the “artificial leaf” technology. Under his stewardship, NTU is well positioned to be a leading global player in renewable energy and solar fuel technology research. In recognition of his research related to artificial leaves and its creation, he was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Exner Medal in 2010, joining an illustrious list of laureates which includes 15 Nobel Prize winners whose research have helped to shape the world we live in today.

NTU’s Solar Fuels Lab, the first in Asia, was officially opened by Professor Andersson today. A seminar on solar fuel generation and artificial photosynthesis was also held in conjunction with the opening ceremony. The lab will be jointly managed by NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N).

The primary objective of the researchers involved in NTU’s solar fuels programme is to develop a solar-driven technology that is commercially viable. To achieve this, the researchers need to find suitable combinations of chemical catalysts that can speed up the artificial photosynthesis process using minimal energy. That will enable the large-scale production of fuel to be carried out in a cost-effective and efficient manner. 

“The Solar Fuels Lab is an initiative in support of Sustainable Earth, one of NTU’s Five Peaks of Excellence. The Solar Fuels lab will focus on harvesting solar energy to produce renewable energy sources from water. Through the use of cheap abundant materials, carbon-free fuels can be generated to satisfy the world’s increasing demand for energy,” said Professor Freddy Boey, NTU’s Provost-Designate, who was the previous Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering.

Under NTU’s Five Peaks of Excellence, the university has set its sights on putting its global stamp in five areas. Besides Sustainable Earth, the other peaks are Future Healthcare, New Media, New Silk Road and Innovation Asia.

To work on this exciting project, NTU has assembled a team of bright young researchers to work with world-class experts, namely Professor James Barber, Professor Michael Gratzal, Dr Heinz Frei and Dr John Turner.

Professor Barber is the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London and a Visiting Professor at NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering. A world-renowned biochemist and a leading name in photosynthesis research, he will be a key scientific advisor to the Solar Fuels Lab. His responsibilities include linking local researchers with internationally renowned scientists working in this field to enable synergistic collaborations.

“The need to exploit solar energy on a large scale as a renewable energy source is well recognised worldwide and there is considerable activity internationally especially in the US. We believe that the Solar Fuels Laboratory at NTU will bring new ideas and approaches to this grand challenge,” said Professor Barber.   

Professor Gratzal, from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnic Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), is the winner of the prestigious 2010 Millennium Technology Award. No stranger to NTU, he is the Chair of ERI@N’s Scientific Advisory Board. One of the 10 most highly cited chemists in the world, Professor Gratzal is an expert on solar cells and has developed “Gratzal cells” which provide a cheaper way of harnessing solar energy. He has also pioneered various ground-breaking research, including the development of photoelectrochemical water-splitting devices. His current project with NTU involves the enhancement of water splitting techniques.

Dr Frei, Deputy Director of Helios Solar Energy Research Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, is the recipient of the Werner-Prize of the Swiss Chemical Society. An authority in catalytic materials and their chemical properties, he will work with NTU researchers in the designing of catalytic combinations.

Another collaborator with the Solar Fuels Lab is Dr John Turner from National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US who is recognized worldwide for his scientific contributions in hydrogen production via photoelectrochemical water-splitting techniques. Dr Turner’s team and NREL has been making significant advances in the field of renewable energies worldwide and NTU looks forward to establishing a strong partnership with his organization. An outstanding scientist, he will provide a vital link between NTU and the various expertise in NREL.

The international experts will collaborate on this research programme with two true-blue NTU talents. Assistant professors Joachim Loo and Lydia Wong both pursued their undergraduate education and doctoral studies at NTU. Dr Loo is the Principal Investigator of this solar fuels programme. A promising young researcher, Dr Loo, 34, already has six patents to his name and is a specialist in controlled drug delivery methods. Dr Wong, 30, previously a Visiting Scientist at Stanford University, was the third prize winner of the Young Persons’ Lecture Competition in London in 2004. 

The third researcher involved in this programme is Assistant Professor Zhao Yang, 44, a recipient of National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Competitive Research Programme (CRP) award worth S$10 million.
“Clean energy research is an exciting area to be in. As the principal investigator, I am delighted to have within the research team the world’s leading lights in solar research and some of the brightest talents from NTU. At NTU, we are big in sustainability research and this latest Solar Fuels Lab is another major step in this direction,” said Dr Loo.

With more than $830 million in research funding in sustainability alone, NTU is fast becoming a global research powerhouse in environmental technologies. NTU’s recently opened ERI@N has already secured S$200 million in funding and has partnerships with six top European universities, including University of Cambridge, Imperial College of London and Technical University Munich (TUM). Besides academic collaborations, ERI@N is also working closely with leading industry players such as Robert Bosch, Vestas and Rolls-Royce. NTU is also home to two Research Centres of Excellence – the Earth Observatory of Singapore and the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering.

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