Posted: 09 Jun 2012 07:47 AM PDT
Titanium dioxide, better known as a key ingredient in white paint, is beginning to carve out an all-purpose spot for itself in the field of air pollution control. While not yet up to the ShamWow standard for range of applicability, this common substance could be on the verge of playing an even larger role in sustainability-related fields, as scientists at the University of Washington have unlocked the mechanism behind its strong reactive powers.
Smog-Eating Buildings, and More
Titanium dioxide has photocatalytic properties, meaning that sunlight sets off a reaction on the surface of its molecules.
Alcoa has already developed this property into a titanium-based coating that enables buildings to “eat” smog by converting airborne nitrogen oxide (a major contributor to smog and acid rain) to nitrates. A company called Pureti has been developing a similar concept for a surface treatment that could be applied to roads, to neutralize nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles.
The sensitivity of titanium dioxide to airborne pollutants has also led to the development of a bomb detection device inspired by silkmoth antennae.
In addition to its pollution-fighting capabilities, titanium dioxide is being explored as a means of increasing the efficiency of solar energy conversion. Specifically, a solar cell enhanced with titanium dioxide would provide an emission-free way to produce hydrogen for use in fuel cells (check out MIT researcher Daniel Nocera’s “artificial leaf,” for example).
The Key to Titanium Dioxide
According to a long body of research into metal oxides like titanium dioxide, chemical reactions on the surface are comprised of a transfer of electrons, while the atoms themselves stay put.
The Washington research revealed that in some cases, the transfer can also include electrons coupled with protons.
As explained in a prepared statement by chemistry professor James Mayer, this discovery could lead to new technologies based on more efficient reactions:
“Research and manufacturing have grown up around models in which electrons moved but not atoms…In principle this is a path toward more efficient energy utilization.”
Beyond Titanium Dioxide
As a corollary to more energy efficient pathways, the electron-proton coupling could lead to the use of common, low-cost substances to produce energy from chemical reactions, helping to lower the cost of fuel cells and solar cells.
Titanium dioxide is not the only candidate in this regard. The Washington team observed the same phenomenon in another common substance, zinc oxide, which is already being studied for its potential in developing the next generation of low cost solar cells.
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Posted: 09 Jun 2012 02:42 AM PDT
Anyway, while I could submit a previously written article to the competition, the opportunity got me thinking a bit, and I decided to write this piece for it instead:
Cleantech & The Wizard of Oz
Where’s the connection to cleantech? Well, it’s more than clear at this point that: 1) there is a massive effort by those in fossil fuel industries or strongly connected to them (i.e. certain political leaders) to undermine and stop (or slow) a cleantech revolution; 2) many still incorrectly think and claim that cleantech isn’t capable of solving the global warming, water, and numerous related crises we are facing; 3) the public and the ‘good’ political leaders we have are yet to show that they care enough about these crises to cut fossil fuel subsidies and push cleantech into the position it is set to take.
Cleantech is critical to solving our global warming crisis, our growing water crisis, and the many, many related wildlife and environment crises we are facing.
At this point, all we really need is the courage to stand up to the rich fossil fuel industries; the brains to realize that cleantech is the most crucial element in stopping global warming (that it really could power the world) and is also critical to addressing our growing water shortages; and the heart to care enough about humanity and the rest of nature to take action before it is too late.
The challenge is not small. But what good story is without a challenge?
The goal is attainable. And we actually do have all we need in order to reach our important destination. (Of course, Dorothy and her red shoes could also be of some help — I’ll let you decide what they represent.)
Image Credit: garlandcannon
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