Researchers from the University of Wollongong in New South Wales have spearheaded the establishment of a global consortium which is using sunlight to convert water into important chemical fuels such as hydrogen gas.
The research has the potential to create a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use. The process would also have a variety of commercial benefits, given that it would be a renewable and low-cost fuel option.
On 29 February 2012, scientists from Rutgers University in the United States and Stuttgart University in Germany visited the University of Wollongong to further develop their ideas and strategies for the consortium’s work on splitting water to make hydrogen.Article continues below…
The core technology comprises separate but complementary innovations developed via collaborations between the University of Wollongong, Princeton University, Rutgers University and Monash University over the past ten years.
Scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India and the Indian Institute of Science will also engage in the project.
Meeting at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), the scientists brought together the wide range of skills necessary to create cleaner hydrogen – including the design of molecular catalysts, fabrication of nanostructured electrodes, cell design and practical implementation.
“A global team is essential to tackling complex research challenges that will have an international impact and water splitting is certainly one of those,” says ACES Executive Director Professor Gordon Wallace. “It makes sense to bring together the best minds on the planet if we are going to progress in a reasonable time frame.”
Professor Wallace is joined in these efforts by Professor David Officer, Professor Doug MacFarlane and Professor Gerry Swiegers – who says that the global consortium can be seen as a cross-disciplinary team whereby the United States representatives offer strong biological assistance, the German representatives provide strong chemical engineering assistance and the Indian representatives assist with an understanding of the atomic and molecular level of operation.
“Each of our collaborators has a set of innovations, and we’re trying to put them all together to create cross-disciplinary pollination where people move across boundaries between the different institutions and learn together,” Professor Swiegers says.
The road to commercialisation
These innovations will now be packaged together to provide an efficient method of splitting water into its component parts using only sunlight.
Broadly, the technologies involve the use of novel catalytic processes that enhance the efficient production of certain molecules of interest. The first technology uses a highly-efficient chemical process, via novel electrocatalysts, to convert water into hydrogen gas. The second technology mimics the water-oxidising centre in photosynthesis to produce oxygen gas from water under sunlight. Fully functional mimicry of this type has not previously been achieved.
“Put together, these technologies offer a cutting-edge advance for the splitting of water into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as the reverse process – the production of an electrical current from the combination of the elemental hydrogen and oxygen to form water,” Professor Wallace says.
“The combination of these technologies offers a means of efficiently creating hydrogen gas (as a fuel) and then converting it into a powerful electric current by using it in a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell.
“The water-splitting application has been demonstrated in simple ‘proof of concept’ devices within the laboratory. The research teams are currently performing studies to obtain efficiency data and are working towards engineering a prototype device.”
The ultimate aim is to develop commercial devices able to spontaneously convert water into hydrogen and oxygen under sunlight.
Professor Swiegers says that commercialisation prospects for the technologies look good.
“We’re very close now to starting to commercialise hydrogen generated very efficiently by grid electricity,” he says. “That will be the first step we will try to commercialise, and off that, we will move on to building a commercialised technology for solar hydrogen, producing hydrogen from sunlight only.”
Professor Swiegers says that the resulting fuel could be used in vehicles in the long term, but the short-term prospects revolve around reducing the carbon dioxide emitted by the 50 million tonnes of hydrogen produced each year for industrial purposes, such as fertilisers, explosives for mining, and refining petrol.
Professor Wallace adds “Advances in our understanding of nature’s catalytic principles coupled with advances in nanofabrication bring us ever closer to a truly sustainable energy future – but the challenge in delivering practical systems that can be economically implemented remains formidable.”