A cheap, effective means of producing hydrogen gas as a fuel has been a longtime goal for researchers since it could replace other fuels like gasoline with a clean burning alternative. Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom think they’ve found a way to produce hydrogen cheaply using biomass and the sun and recently published their research in Nature Energy.
“There’s a lot of chemical energy stored in raw biomass, but it’s unrefined, so you can’t expect it to work in complicated machinery, such as a car engine. Our system is able to convert the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful,” explained David Wakerley, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who co-wrote and lead the research with Moritz Kuehnel also of the department. “We have specifically designed a combination of catalyst and solution that allows this transformation to occur using sunlight as a source of energy. With this in place we can simply add organic matter to the system and then, provided it’s a sunny day, produce hydrogen fuel.”
The biggest problem with creating hydrogen gas in mass quantities is that it bonds very easily with almost everything. It’s in wood, gas, oil, dirt, just about everything. In fact, oil and coal are forms of refined biomass converted into a more readily combustible energy source. Biomass is basically unrefined oil or goal.
Cambridge researchers have found a way to convert the main component of biomass, lignocellulose—which keeps hydrogen securely bonded, into its gaseous form via a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Once that’s done, it can be stored as an energy source.
"Lignocellulose is nature's equivalent to armored concrete,” asserted Kuehnel. “It consists of strong, highly crystalline cellulose fibers, 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 utilization of lignocellulose so challenging."
In the new process researchers suspended biomass in alkaline water and added catalytic nanoparticles. In the lab they placed the material in front of a light mimicking sunlight. As the solution strips the hydrogen from the material it’s collected at the top of the device the reaction is taking place in. “The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power,” Cambridge stated in a release about the process.
“It enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions. We see it as a new and viable alternative to high temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production,” said Erwin Reisner, who heads the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, where the technology was developed. “Future development can be envisioned at any scale, from small scale devices for off-grid applications to industrial-scale plants, and we are currently exploring a range of potential commercial options.”
Already the university’s commercialization arm, Cambridge Enterprise, is looking to patent the technology and has helped coordinate efforts to find a commercial partner to bring the technology to market.Tweet