Researchers close to developing method of turning sunlight into hydrogen fuel

12 Mar 2015

US researchers are looking to nature to inspire their latest creation, a solar electrolyser capable of harnessing hydrogen and oxygen from water similar in concept to a leaf’s photosynthesis.

The Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) created the device.

JCAP, a centre established in 2010, had been promised US$122m over a five-year period to develop artificial solar-fuel generation technology. The research team now says it is one step away from making the technology affordable.

By achieving this artificial photosynthesis, hydrogen could be extracted from abundant water supplies to make hydrogen fuel, which is one potential future fuel source that is already being developed to power a number of future cars, most noticeably the Toyota Mirai.

Using current technology, however, it is an expensive process to use solar energy to power an electrolyser, given that the solar power needs to be sent to an existing electrolyser which could bring the equivalent cost compared with gasoline to between US$10 and US$20.

However, with the JCAP’s newly developed device that includes both solar panels and electrolyser, this cost can be lowered to as little as US$2 and US$4.

When two become one

According to MIT Technology Review, the team achieved this by combining two existing technologies used in this particular field, those being, electrolysis and silicon or cadmium-telluride solar cells, which will make it both cheaper and more efficient.

The biggest hurdle the researchers had to overcome was finding a way in which the alkaline solution used in most electrolysers would immediately corrode solar cells, but with the use of nickel oxide as the basis of the catalyst, the solar cells can remain intact.

The only issue now, however, is that the JCAP’s funding will be running out this year and it is actively looking for more to continue the research.

The team has published its findings in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Leaves image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic