Researchers have been working on ways for many years to extract hydrogen from seawater in a cost-effective way to produce an abundant source of clean fuel, to mixed results. Now a researcher at the University of Central Florida has developed a nanomaterial that uses solar energy to generate the gas from seawater more cheaply and efficiently than current materials, giving new promise to developing eco-friendly, hydrogen-based fuels.
Yang Yang, an assistant professor with joint appointments in the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has been focused on solar hydrogen-splitting for nearly 10 years.
The key reason it’s been difficult to produce hydrogen to power fuel cells by extracting the gas from seawater is that the electricity required to do it makes the process costly. However, by using solar energy and solving a problem scientists have had in using sunlight when working to extract hydrogen from seawater, Yang’s approach is much more cost-effective than previous techniques.
“We use molybdenum disulfide to sensitize titanium oxide for solar energy harvesting,” he explained to Design News. “A direct result from this new material is to splitting seawater by the aid of solar light.”
A researcher at the University of Central Florida has developed a nanomaterial that uses solar energy to generate the gas from seawater more cheaply and efficiently than current materials, giving new promise to developing eco-friendly, hydrogen-based fuels. (Image source: University of Central Florida)
Scientists traditionally have used a photocatalyst—a material that spurs a chemical reaction using energy from light—to extract hydrogen from water, with Yang focusing his work first on using solar energy as the catalyst to extract hydrogen from purified water.
However, it’s been a much more difficult task to do this with seawater, as the photocatalysts needed have not to date been durable enough to handle its biomass and corrosive salt. The catalyst Yang and his team have developed not only can harvest a much broader spectrum of light than other materials, but also can stand up to the harsh conditions found in seawater, he said.
“The materials we developed have a much longer lifetime and anti-corrosion properties compared to conventional titanium oxide powder materials,” Yang said. The researchers published a paper on their work in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science.
Yang said that fabricating the catalyst is relatively easy and inexpensive, and can lead to an abundant source of clean-burning fuel to replace fossil fuels and other sources of energy that are harmful to the environment.
“In the future it can be a long-lasting energy source that can even replace nuclear energy,” he said. Though the current administration under President Trump in the United States has been scaling back these types of efforts, scientists continue to seek cleaner alternatives to traditional types of energy.
To that end, Yang and the team will continue their research by focusing on the best way to scale up the fabrication of the nanomaterial as well as further improve its performance so it’s possible to split hydrogen from wastewater, he added.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.