Cleanly converting solar energy into storable hydrogen fuel

Research led by the University of Strathclyde suggests that solar energy can be accessed and converted into renewable and storable hydrogen fuel.

Research conducted by the University of Strathclyde suggests that using a photocatalyst under simulated sunlight can facilitate the decomposition of water when loaded with iridium. This proposes that solar energy can be accessed and converted into storable hydrogen fuel.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions need to be significantly reduced to mitigate and potentially avoid the damaging effects of climate change, with access to clean and affordable energy being essential to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. The UK Government plans to replace fossil fuels through the use of storable hydrogen fuel.

The majority of hydrogen is continually made from natural gas, which produces greenhouse gasses, meaning that green hydrogen production is urgently required. Green hydrogen is created from water utilising a photocatalyst – a material that drives the decomposition of water into storable hydrogen fuel and oxygen using sunlight.

The results from the study, ‘Photocatalytic overall water splitting under visible light enabled by a particulate conjugated polymer loaded with iridium,’ were recently published in the the German Chemical Society.

Photocatalyst accessing solar energy

Research suggests that utilising a photocatalyst under simulated sunlight facilitates the decomposition of water when loaded with an appropriate metal catalyst – such as iridium.

When utilised in a fuel cell, hydrogen does not emit any greenhouse gasses at the point of use and can help to decarbonise sectors, such as shipping and transportation where it can be utilised as a fuel, as well as in manufacturing industries.

“An abundant renewable energy resource to address the challenge of sustainable energy exists in the form of the Sun, with the energy reaching Earth’s surface being eight thousand times greater than the entire annual global energy need of our societies,” explained Principal Investigator, Dr Sebastian Sprick, from the University of Strathclyde.

Creating storable hydrogen fuel

“The reported photocatalyst can access solar energy through energetically unfavourable processes to generate a storable energy carrier in the form of hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can then be converted cleanly into electricity in a fuel cell, with water being the only side-product.

“This is a significant step forward for us as previous systems have relied on using so-called sacrificial reagents to drive the reaction. Sacrificial agents are the electron donors, which reduce the recombination tendency of electrons, and accelerate the rate of hydrogen generation. Although these allow us as researchers to understand systems, they have made them ‘energy negative.’

“The photocatalysts (polymers) are of huge interest as their properties can be tuned using synthetic approaches, allowing for simple and systematic optimisation of the structure in the future.”

Researchers concluded that another potential advantage of this process is that polymers are printable, allowing the use of cost-effective printing technologies to scale-up production, such as in newspaper printing.

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