A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a way of using solar power to generate a fuel that is both sustainable and relatively cheap to produce. It’s using natural light to generate hydrogen from biomass. One of the challenges facing modern society is what it does with its waste products. As natural resources decline in abundance, using waste for energy is becoming more pressing for both governments and business. Biomass has been a source of heat and energy since the beginning of recorded history. The planet’s oil reserves are derived from ancient biomass which has been subjected to high pressures and temperatures over millions of years. Lignocellulose is the main component of plant biomass and up to now its conversion into hydrogen has only been achieved through a gasification process which uses high temperatures to decompose it fully.
“Lignocellulose is nature’s equivalent to armoured concrete. It consists of strong, highly crystalline cellulose fibres, that are interwoven with lignin and hemicellulose which act as a glue. This rigid structure has evolved to give plants and trees mechanical stability and protect them from degradation, and makes chemical utilisation of lignocellulose so challenging,” says Dr Moritz Kuehnel, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the research.
The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Catalytic nanoparticles are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This is then placed in front of a light in the lab which mimics solar light. The solution is ideal for absorbing this light and converting the biomass into gaseous hydrogen which can then be collected from the headspace. The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power.
The findings have been published in Nature Energy.