The quest to develop the ‘Holy Grail’ of affordable, viable, and environmentally-friendly fuels using sunlight has taken an exciting new twist.

A team of renewable energy experts from the University of Exeter has pioneered a new technique to produce hydrogen from sunlight to create a clean, cheap, and widely-available fuel.

The team developed an innovative method to split water into its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen – using sunlight. The hydrogen can then be used as a fuel, with the potential to power everyday items such as homes and vehicles.

Crucially, hydrogen fuel that can be created through this synthetic photosynthesis method would not only create zero carbon emissions, but it would also be a virtually limitless energy source.

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At present, around 85% of the global energy provisions come from the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore the need and desire to find a sustainable, cost-effective renewable fuel source is growing in urgency.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sun is earth’s most abundant renewable energy source, with the potential to provide 100,000 terawatts of power each year – meaning one hour’s worth of solar energy is equal to an entire year of total energy consumption worldwide.

However, one of the most significant hindrances to the development of viable solar energy has been an inability to produce a semiconducting material that can effectively convert sunlight to a storable energy source.

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But in this new research, the team utilized lanthanum iron oxide to create a semiconducting material that gave the ideal results for using sunlight to produce hydrogen from water, making it the strongest candidate yet for renewable hydrogen generation.

The ground-breaking new research centers on the use of a revolutionary photo-electrode – an electrode that absorbs light before initializing electrochemical transformations to extract the hydrogen from water – made from nanoparticles of the elements lanthanum, iron, and oxygen.

The researchers believe this new type of photo-electrode is not only cheap to produce, but can also be recreated on a larger scale for mass and worldwide use.

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The research is published in leading journal, Scientific Reports.

Govinder Pawar, lead author on the paper and based at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability in Cornwall said: “With growing economies and population, fossil fuels will not be able to sustain the global energy demand in a ‘clean’ manner as they are being exhausted at an alarming rate.

“Alternative renewable fuels sources must be found which can sustain the global energy demand. Hydrogen is a promising alternative fuel source capable of replacing fossil fuels as it has a higher energy density than fossil fuels (more than double), zero-carbon emissions and the only by-product is water.”

Govinder Pawar added: “We have shown that our photo-electrode has ideal band alignments needed to split water into its constituents (H2 and O2) spontaneously, without the need of an external bias. Moreover, our material has excellent stability where after 21 hours of testing it does not degrade, ideal for water splitting purpose. We are currently working on further improving our material to make it more efficient to produce more hydrogen.”

(Source: Exeter University)

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  1. Could they use sea-water also ? – as water is getting even more scarce now ? Also since this methodology USES water as the source how can it be a producer of water ??? : ‘by-product is water’ per the article above ! -something doesn’t add up.

  2. Quote ” vcragain May 3, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Could they use sea-water also ? – as water is getting even more scarce now ? Also since this methodology USES water as the source how can it be a producer of water ??? : ‘by-product is water’ per the article above ! -something doesn’t add up. ” End Quote

    Yes they can use sea water for electrolysis. And water is a by-product of the process of using hydrogen to power processes, although it sounds counterintuitive.

    The process goes burn hydrogen in engine/use hydrogen in hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity (which can then be used to run electric motors, or power any other electrical appliance). And then after the hydrogen is burned or run through the hydrogen fuel cell, it recombines with oxygen (in the device or in the air) and comes out the exhaust pipe of the engine as water or out of the other side of the hydrogen fuel cell as water.

    The hydrogen is never “destroyed”, just used as energy and then converts itself back to water as it is exposed to oxygen on the other side of the process. The ultimate renewable resource. The water could even be caught in tanks on the exhaust side and re-used, but since hydrogen is such an energy-dense source a couple of liters of hydrogen gas stored in gaseous form – say in metal hydride tanks – would produce much more water on the “exhaust” side of the process.

    Stored in metal hydride tanks, it is much much safer than fossil-fuels. The hydrides are heated, with say electrical induction heaters in the tank, and absorb the hydrogen. When heated again in the vehicle, the hydrogen is released to be used as a fuel source. Very difficult to cause an explosion when stored in this manner and used in this type of cycle. A scientist named Ovshinski (I believe) came up with the storage process, and the company he founded sells tanks that store hydrogen in this manner.

    So you have an energy source which is very safe and stable when stored correctly, and completely renewable. Starts as water, turned into hydrogen, hydrogen is used, hydrogen recombines with oxygen (usually in the air itself), and comes out as water again on the other side of the energy-use-cycle.

  3. Correction: the scientist I referred to in my earlier post is Stanley Ovshinsky. I believe his company that makes the metal hydride tanks is called ECD. You can do a google search and come up with more information.

    With Stan’s storage tanks for safe storage & use of hydrogen, if this development by the Exeter University team pans out as a cheap & efficient method of electrolyzing water for hydrogen and oxygen, this this Exeter team development may indeed be the missing needed ingredient for the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ to be realized. We just have to see how cheap this process can be made, and how efficiently it can be made to electrolyze water.