Breakthrough to make cheap hydrogen fuel possible

August 18th, 2008 - 12:47 pm ICT by IANS  


Washington, Aug 18 (IANS) A breakthrough could revolutionise the renewable energy industry by making hydrogen - heralded as a clean, green fuel of the future - cheaper and easier to produce commercially. Researchers used plant based chemicals to reproduce a key process in photosynthesis, which will take the help of sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

“We have copied nature, taking the elements and mechanisms found in plant life that have evolved over three billion years and recreated one of those processes in the laboratory,” said Leone Spiccia, of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

“The breakthrough came when we coated a proton conductor, called Nafion, onto an anode to form a polymer membrane just a few micrometres thick, which acts as a host for the manganese clusters,” he added.

“A manganese cluster is central to a plant’s ability to use water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen. Man-made mimics of this cluster were developed by Dismukes some time ago, and we’ve taken it a step further, harnessing the ability of these molecules to convert water into its component elements, oxygen and hydrogen,” Spiccia said.

“Normally insoluble in water, when we bound the catalyst within the pores of the Nafion membrane, it was stabilised against decomposition and, importantly, water could reach the catalyst where it was oxidised on exposure to light.”

This process of “oxidising” water generates protons and electrons, which can be converted into hydrogen gas instead of carbohydrates as in plants.

“Whilst man has been able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for years, we have been able to do the same thing for the first time using just sunlight, an electrical potential of 1.2 volts and the very chemical that nature has selected for this purpose,” Spiccia said.

Leone Spiccia, Robin Brimblecombe and Annette Koo from Monash University teamed with Gerhard Swiegers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation CSIRO and Charles Dismukes at Princeton University, collaborated on the project.

Spiccia said the efficiency of the system needed to be improved, but this breakthrough had huge potential. “We need to continue to learn from nature so that we can better master this process.”

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