Developing microreactors that transform water into hydrogen fuel

Scientists from the University of Southampton have used solar energy to convert optical fibres into photocatalytic microreactors that transform water into hydrogen fuel.

In a new paper, published in American Chemical Society, scientists describe how their groundbreaking technology coats the inside of microstructured optical fibre canes with a photocatalyst, which reacts with light to generate hydrogen.

Investigating photochemical conversion

The microstructured optical fibre canes have been developed as high pressure microfluidic reactors by each housing multiple capillaries that pass a chemical reaction along the length of the cane. In addition to hydrogen generation from water, the multi-disciplinary research team is investigating photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into synthetic fuel. The unique methodology presents a potential solution for renewable energy.

The scientists coat the fibres with titanium oxide, decorated with palladium nanoparticles. This approach allows the coated canes to serve as both host and catalyst for the continuous indirect water splitting, with methanol as a sacrificial reagent.

Behind the research

The research is led by Matthew Potter, Chemistry Research Fellow, with contributions from Chemistry’s Professor Robert Raja, Alice Oakley and Daniel Stewart, the ORC’s Dr Pier Sazio and Dr Thomas Bradley, and Engineering’s Dr Richard Boardman at the µ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre.

Potter says: “Being able to combine light-activated chemical processes with the excellent light propagation properties of optical fibres has huge potential. In this work our unique photoreactor shows significant improvements in activity compared to existing systems. This as an ideal example of chemical engineering for a 21st century green technology.”

Sazio, from the Zepler Institute, says: “Optical fibres form the physical layer of the remarkable four billion kilometre long global telecommunications network, currently bifurcating and expanding at a rate of over Mach 20, i.e. over 14,000 ft/sec. For this project, we repurposed this extraordinary manufacturing capability using facilities here at the ORC, to fabricate highly scalable microreactors made from pure silica glass with ideal optical transparency properties for solar photocatalysis.”

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