Clean Power U of Washington reserachers unlock titanium dioxide secrets

Published on June 9th, 2012 | by Tina Casey

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Titanium Dioxide, Unchained!

June 9th, 2012 by  

U of Washington reserachers unlock titanium dioxide secretsTitanium 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.

Image: Some rights reserved by shaire productions.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • PrivateEmail

    Has anyone
    figured out how to attract the C molecule away from the O2 molecule and stop
    once and for all all the CO2 problems we have ?

    • Grow a plant and then dump in the deep ocean or a cold water lake or turn it into charcoal (biochar).  Or just grow treees where there currently aren’t trees.  There are other ways to do it, but growing a plant is the cheapest way.  Plant growth can certainly help, but as for solving all our CO2 problems, we would probably need a carbon price of at least $33 for it to make any appreciable dint in the problem and the highest carbon price in the world is $23.  Currently improved efficiency and solar and wind power are cheaper ways to reduce CO2 emissions.  But plant growth can still be a useful tool. 

  • Very cool….from this end anyway. But doesn’t it shake your confidence in our government…hell, in any government…regarding the money they’re willing to put up for things like this?
    You’d think, that a step towards a vast improvement in energy efficiency and the creation of it itself, would have the powers that be, all over this stuff.
    Think of this as a glitch in the human mind’s functioning…….we use all the titanium dioxide required to make white paint……but when it comes to using it to save our planet, we mess around with tiny amounts…………..so, we have a white coloring substance being more important than the good of humanity, and even the good of non human life…(PETA, where are you NOW?)
    Can you see how absurd we, as a species, are?

  • RichardLAnderson
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