- Title: Scientists turn garbage into hydrogen using solar power
- Date: 13th April 2017
- Summary: CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND, UK (MARCH 28, 2017) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR. DAVID WAKERLEY SAYING: "So we use things called solar light simulators which mimic the sun's range of wavelengths so that we can appreciate how the technology works in constant sunlight. The problem is if we're trying to do these reactions in Cambridge in the UK where the sky is mostly cloudy most of the time we really couldn't do our research year round and that's the issue, especially given the winter we've just had which was quite cloudy. But the important thing about the research we're doing is that it could be applied to countries like India or continents like Africa where they do have huge amounts of biomass and huge amounts of sunlight everyday that they could really take advantage of to generate a renewable fuel."
- Embargoed: 27th April 2017 12:00
- Keywords: Biomass hydrogen solar energy Cambridge UK chemistry
- Location: CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND, UK
- City: CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND, UK
- Country: United Kingdom
- Topics: Science
- Reuters ID: LVA0056C8GI8R
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: A team of chemists in Cambridge have developed a way of turning unprocessed biomass or food waste into hydrogen using solar power at room temperature.
The breakthrough, published in Nature Energy, overturns the long held belief that recovering hydrogen from plant cuttings or food waste required too much power to be a sustainable energy source.
The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process, with nanoparticles added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended.
"The photocatalysts, which are nanoparticles about 5 nanometres in size, what they do is they absorb sunlight and they create excited charges and these charges on one hand oxidize the biomass to carbon dioxide and on the other hand reduce water to hydrogen," said Dr Moritz Kuehnel, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.
Along with joint first author Dr David Wakerley the pair were testing the catalyst's ability to produce hydrogen from different materials and decided to test it with the most difficult substance they could think of, cellulose.
"We were like, 'OK everything's working at this point shall we see how ridiculous we can take the project? Can we just go outside and cut some grass and throw that into a vial and see if it makes hydrogen,' and it did. So that's the point at which we were like 'actually we've found something very interesting here, let's study this full time' and we just dropped what we were doing and obviously we have a range of different projects as scientists but at that point it was like no, this is something we have to look into right now," Wakerley said.
The team used different types of biomass in their experiments including pieces of wood, paper and leaves, all with no prior processing.
"You don't need to really process your biomass, you just literally stick into in a test tube and shine a light at it. It's very, very simple, so that can be done by anyone. There is a caveat however since the solution is rather alkaline it is rather aggressive. So if you want to do it on a massive scale by people who aren't trained it has to be contained properly otherwise you risk burns for example," said Kuehnel.
The planet's oil reserves are derived from ancient biomass which has been subjected to high pressures and temperatures over millions of years and become today's fossil fuels.
"Mankind has been using biomass as fuel for a long time, people used to burn wood and everything. So I think revamping this old approach of using biomass and mixing it with other approaches that might be the future to generate a mix of renewable energy," said Kuehnel.
If the process can be scaled up it raises exciting opportunities for small scale energy production and storage - even the future possibility of a garbage-powered car.
"That would be a very nice idea actually if you had a thing on the back of the car that you threw your rubbish in and your car drove away. So, potentially, we'd be very excited about that kind of technology and it is something that everyone has obviously. Everyone has biomass waste, everyone has food waste and all of these things can be converted to hydrogen in this new system," Wakerley said.
A UK patent application has been filed and talks are under way with a potential commercial partner.
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