All fuel-forming reactions and catalysis involve moving electrons from one species to another, a.k.a. redox chemistry (combination of “reduction” and “oxidation”). In order to store the energy from the sun in the form of fuels, researchers will need a clean source of electrons.
Nature’s source of electrons in photosynthesis comes from water. Electrons can be derived from the conversion of water molecules into their constituent oxygen gas and positive hydrogen ions (oxidation). This process, however, is very difficult, and requires special substances— catalysts— to facilitate that reaction.
SOFI researchers are developing new catalysts that use earth-abundant elements to split water, either by an electrical potential or by a light-driven process.