A tree may have the answers to renewable energy

Jul 23, 2014 by Jasmine Sola
A tree may have the answers to renewable energy
An illustration of the water splitting process Wang describes.

Through an energy conversion process that mimics that of a tree, a University of Wisconsin-Madison materials scientist is making strides in renewable energy technologies for producing hydrogen.

Xudong Wang, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UW-Madison, recently collaborated with researcher, Dr. Zhiyong Cai, in the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison on research to use cellulose nanofibers (CNFs) for , a process that converts solar energy to fuel.

Wang's vision is to use cellulose like a sponge "tree" that soaks up water from a lake or ocean. At the top would be a photocatalyst that splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

And while researchers have explored water-splitting techniques for years, those techniques have relied on photocatalysts submerged in the water, which limits light penetration to the catalyst. "People made photocatalysts in the water and shone light into the water to generate hydrogen and oxygen," Wang says. "But the limitations included through the water to get to the catalyst. You cannot simply increase the amount of the catalyst since sun is refracted and diffracted. That limited the efficiency of those techniques."

Wang and his collaborators are soaking water up out of the body of water and splitting it in the air. At the top of their "tree" is a mesoporous titanium dioxide photocatalyst created on a cellulose template, which offers a huge surface area. Placed in a body of water, the tree's cellulose "roots" draw water up to the photocatalyst "leaves", where it reacts and splits into hydrogen and oxygen.

"Usually, catalysts are made in a powder form. Not long ago, people started using nanowires for catalysts," Wang says. "We are the first to use a CNF-based template for the catalyst coating and take advantage of its extraordinary hydrophilic property."

This technique greatly improves the process of water splitting, he says. Essentially, it doubles the efficiency of the conventional in-water setups. "If you have a container in the ground, or build a panel like a tree; panels are like leaves and take space in the air to enhance solar energy absorption," Wang says. "This can eliminate the limitations of water surfaces and maximize solar ."

Such panels could be placed in lakes and oceans and could generate hydrogen from water using . "It's a concept that you could use to build a plant that produces hydrogen fuels. The factory could be on land or on a body of water," Wang says.

His research addresses growing interest in converting into hydrogen as a clean energy source. The hydrogen economy model revolves around the notion that energy can be delivered to anything from cars to buildings using hydrogen.

Funding for the research comes from the U.S. Department of Energy. Next, Wang and his collaborators hope to build a larger-scale prototype. Forest Products Laboratory currently is pursuing a patent for the work.

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User comments : 5

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srikkanth_kn
5 / 5 (1) Jul 23, 2014
A good read..

"But the limitations included light penetration through the water to get to the catalyst


But, if my understanding is correct, in-water catalysts need not be 'Deep-in-water' - may have to be in contact with water. Hence these catalysts can convert water while receiving abundant light. This statement is arguable in that sense
ViperSRT3g
not rated yet Jul 23, 2014
But, if my understanding is correct, in-water catalysts need not be 'Deep-in-water' - may have to be in contact with water. Hence these catalysts can convert water while receiving abundant light. This statement is arguable in that sense


Water is highly reflective however, meaning that no matter how you go about doing it, using the catalysts inside of water means that you will still get light being reflected and diffracted back out of the water. I'm fairly sure a combination of the two could possibly work even better than either process alone though!
srikkanth_kn
not rated yet Jul 23, 2014
But, if my understanding is correct, in-water catalysts need not be 'Deep-in-water' - may have to be in contact with water. Hence these catalysts can convert water while receiving abundant light. This statement is arguable in that sense


Water is highly reflective however, meaning that no matter how you go about doing it, using the catalysts inside of water means that you will still get light being reflected and diffracted back out of the water. I'm fairly sure a combination of the two could possibly work even better than either process alone though!


Agreed and thanks. I got this confusion because of word penetration
But the limitations included light 'penetration'
.
krundoloss
5 / 5 (1) Jul 23, 2014
Since nature has had a much longer period of time to develop technology than us lowly humans, we would benefit from trying to mimic nature as early as possible in any line of research. Now if we could just "grow" our own technology, then we are getting somewhere...
betterexists
not rated yet Jul 24, 2014
Actually, they can be located around in the pond shore waters, sticking out onto the air above the land....Water drawn through capillary forces will return back into the pond if unused....Small channels dug around the shore should return the water back to the pond constantly.
This should multiply the surface area for that process to take place!

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