Researchers Taking Multiple Routes to Make Fuel From Sunlight

Researchers Taking Multiple Routes to Make Fuel From Sunlight

Scientists around the world are taking the next step in harnessing the sun for power, moving beyond simply gathering energy from the sun. Instead they are now looking at how to build systems that can use the sun to power fuel cells and mimic photosynthesis.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Dan Nocera and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan announced an inexpensive method for extracting oxygen from water. The process uses solar power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, which can later be combined to provide power at nighttime in a fuel cell.

The innovative part of the process was a new catalyst that uses cheap materials to create oxygen, however it also relies on expensive and rare platinum to make hydrogen.

Although commercialization of such a system seems like a far-off goal, Nocera has said, "I guarantee, in under five years, you'll see this.” And since his announcement, he has been contacted by numerous people working along the same lines, reported.

Nocera is also working in the Powering the Planet project, which has teams focused on developing efficient hydrogen and oxygen catalysts as well as a cheap photovoltaic membrane.

Nocera and Kanan are not alone in their quest. Jim Barber of Imperial College London is working on a system that uses sunlight to combine carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and create sugars and other matter to create fuel. Key to his system, too, is the need for hydrogen and, in turn, a cheap way to get hydrogen out of water.

Yet a third researcher, Leone Spiccia of Australia’s Monash University is working on a system that would use sunlight to act directly on a catalyst instead of having it go first into another system like a fuel cell. The process includes using nanotechnology to create a film-covered electrode that can drive the splitting of water when hit by sunlight.