Chemistry Team Seeks to Use Artificial Photosynthesis and Nanotubes to Generate Hydrogen Fuel with Sunlight

October 14, 2009,

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of four chemists at the University of Rochester have begun work on a new kind of system to derive usable hydrogen fuel from water using only sunlight.

The project has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, which has just given the team nearly $1.7 million to pursue the design.

"Everybody talks about using as a super-green fuel, but actually generating that fuel without using some other non-green energy in the process is not easy," says Kara Bren, professor in the Department of Chemistry. "People have used sunlight to derive hydrogen from before, but the trick is making the whole process efficient enough to be useful."

Bren and the rest of the Rochester team—Professor of Chemistry Richard Eisenberg, and Associate Professors of Chemistry Todd Krauss, and Patrick Holland—will be investigating artificial photosynthesis, which uses sunlight to carry out chemical processes much as plants do. What makes the Rochester approach different from past attempts to use sunlight to produce hydrogen from water, however, is that the device they are preparing is divided into three "modules" that allow each stage of the process to be manipulated and optimized far more easily than other methods.

The first module uses visible light to create free electrons. A complex natural molecule called a chromophore that plants use to absorb sunlight will be re-engineered to efficiently generate reducing electrons.

The second module will be a membrane suffused with carbon nanotubes to act as molecular wires so small that they are only one-millionth the thickness of a human hair. To prevent the chromophores from re-absorbing the electrons, the nanotube membrane channels the electrons away from the chromophores and toward the third module.

In the third module, catalysts put the electrons to work forming hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells in cars, homes, or of the future.

By separating the first and third modules with the nanotube membrane, the chemists hope to isolate the process of gathering sunlight from the process of generating hydrogen. This isolation will allow the team to maximize the system's light-harvesting abilities without altering its hydrogen-generation abilities, and vice versa. Bren says this is a distinct advantage over other systems that have integrated designs because in those designs a change that enhances one trait may degrade another unpredictably and unacceptably.

Bren says it may be years before the team has a system that clearly works better than other designs, and even then the system would have to work efficiently enough to be commercially viable. "But if we succeed, we may be able to not only help create a fuel that burns cleanly, but the creation of the fuel itself may be clean."

Provided by University of Rochester (news : web)

Explore further: New photocatalyst for hydrogen generation works by irradiation with visible light

Related Stories

Scientists learn from nature to split water

August 17, 2008

An international team of researchers led by Monash University has used chemicals found in plants to replicate a key process in photosynthesis paving the way to a new approach that uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen ...

Molecular assemblies created to convert water to hydrogen gas

August 25, 2004

Wonder where the fuel will come from for tomorrow's hydrogen-powered vehicles? Virginia Tech researchers are developing catalysts that will convert water to hydrogen gas. The research will be presented at the 228th American ...

Sweet fuel supply

November 28, 2007

A new type of fuel cell powered with glucose derived from biomass is described in the latest issue of the Inderscience Publication International Journal of Global Energy Issues. The experimental device works by using sunlight ...

Solar cell directly splits water for hydrogen

February 18, 2008

Plants trees and algae do it. Even some bacteria and moss do it, but scientists have had a difficult time developing methods to turn sunlight into useful fuel. Now, Penn State researchers have a proof-of-concept device that ...

Recommended for you

Field-responsive mechanical metamaterials (FRMMs)

December 11, 2018

In a recent study published in Science Advances, materials scientists Julie A. Jackson and colleagues presented a new class of materials architecture called field-responsive mechanical metamaterials (FRMM). The FRMMs exhibit ...

CRISPR method for conditional gene regulation

December 11, 2018

A team of engineers at the University of Delaware has developed a method to use CRISPR/Cas9 technology to set off a cascade of activities in cells, a phenomenon known as conditional gene regulation. Their method, described ...

Researchers develop smartphone-based ovulation test

December 11, 2018

Investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital are developing an automated, low-cost tool to predict a woman's ovulation and aid in family planning. Capitalizing on advancements in several areas, including microfluidics, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.