The Department of Energy is funding a Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub to help develop ways to mimic a leaf's photosynthetic ability to capture the sun's energy and convert it to chemical fuel. The trick is to do this sustainably using safe earth-abundant materials. More than 400 high school and college student volunteers (see map below) are helping researchers screen for earth-abundant metal-oxides that help turn sunlight and water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. Platinum catalysts which can be used to split water with sunlight are expensive and getting hard to come by. To do this sustainably, the students and researchers are looking for inexpensive earth-abundant components like cobalt, nickel, and iron to catalyze the conversion. This article, "The Sunshine General", from the Spring/Summer 2011 edition of Caltech's E & S publication describes how students can help in the discovery process using a screening kit called SHArK (Solar Hydrogen Activity Research Kit). Students interested in participating can check out the Caltech Solar Materials Discovery Project and view the materials database being generated by students involved in this distributed research effort.
In Portland, three schools have been SHArK participants- Portland State University, Reed College, and Lewis & Clark College. Let's go SHArKs!