What can artificial photosynthesis give us? hydrogen fuel!

Inspired by the way plants work, scientists have taken a significant step toward developing a device that, in short, pulls water from the air and feeds us with hydrogen fuel, powered only by sunlight. The vision known to us mainly from science fiction motifs may soon become a reality.

How is that possible? EPFL chemical engineer Kevin Civula and his team have taken a significant step towards creating such a device. Their answer to the ever-growing needs of our civilization is a simple system that combines semiconductor technology with new electrodes that have two main features: and transparent to maximize sunlight exposure to the semiconductor coating. Their prototype, when exposed to sunlight, draws water from the air and produces hydrogen gas. The results of the research were published on January 4, 2023 in the journal Advanced Materials.

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The results are really promising. However, what is also important is how scientists first came up with the idea of ​​generating energy in this way. EPFL engineers, in collaboration with Toyota Motor Europe, were inspired by how plants are able to convert sunlight into chemical energy by using carbon dioxide from the air. The plant absorbs carbon dioxide and water from it. And thanks to the energy of sunlight, it can convert these molecules into sugar and starch. The effect is also the release of oxygen, which is essential for the life of most organisms. Scientists developing a device to produce hydrogen are directly based on what they observe in nature.

The transparent diffusion electrodes developed by the scientists, when coated with a light-focusing semiconductor material, actually act like an artificial leaf, collecting water from the air and absorbing sunlight. The energy of sunlight is stored in the form of hydrogen bonds. It works like plants. there, solar energy is “hidden” inside sugars and starches in the form of bonds between their molecules.

Unique electrodes – a recipe for building a working hydrogen generator

How did scientists manage to create efficient electrodes? Instead of building them in the traditional way, they decided to use a three-dimensional mesh made of threaded glass fiber. It should be noted that the presented method is already recognized as one whose operation is confirmed. Many teams of scientists, including Kevin Sivula’s team, have previously demonstrated that artificial photosynthesis is possible by creating hydrogen fuel from liquid water and sunlight using a device called a photoelectrochemical cell.

Currently, scientists are focusing on the significant challenges of optimizing specific aspects of the “artificial photosynthesis” device; they have to answer questions like: What is the ideal fiber size? Ideal pore size? What are the ideal semiconductors and materials for the membrane? All this needs to be addressed before offering a device that can be adapted to different applications and industries.

In a few years, it may turn out that we have solutions that can help us get clean energy in a simpler way. Scholarly efforts such as those mentioned above can be extremely helpful in this regard. It looks like we are on the verge of an energy revolution.

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