The urgency to develop new technologies that harness energy and natural feedstocks in a sustainable fashion has never been more apparent. With global power consumption growing at an exponential rate, only one resource is truly capable of powering the planet: the sun. Sunlight is reliable, clean, and free.
Though significant progress has been made improving photovoltaics and solar-driven water-splitting devices for electricity and fuel, the chemical industry remains trapped employing the methodology of 20th century catalysis.
The use of high-temperature, high-pressure reactors in industry is Carnot limited, and requires combustion or the conversion of electricity into heat. This process is inefficient. A striking example is the Haber-Bosch process (400-500°C, 15-25 MPa), the industrial reduction of nitrogen to ammonia, which accounts for over 1% of worldwide power consumption.
In addition, global climate change dictates that 100% of CO2 emissions be “carbon-neutral” by 2050, requiring widespread carbon dioxide sequestration or chemical reduction. Reduction of CO2 to chemical fuels is attractive, since it closes the carbon cycle while preserving the current liquid fuel infrastructure.
The direct use of solar-generated electricity is Carnot-exempt, and the future of sustainable catalysis lies in the development of earth-abundant, highly-active electrocatalysts.