Scientists using sunlight, water to produce renewable hydrogen power

June 16, 2016, University of Iowa
UI researchers have developed a small solar-powered electrochemical device that can help make energy using sunlight and water. Credit: Syed Mubeen.

University of Iowa researchers are working with a California-based startup company to make clean energy from sunlight and any source of water.

The university recently renewed a one-year research agreement to further develop the technology with HyperSolar, a company that aims to commercialize low-cost renewable .

Hydrogen power is arguably one of the cleanest and greenest sources because when it produces energy, the final byproduct is instead of carbon emissions. Hydrogen power also can be stored in a fuel cell, making it more reliable than traditional solar cells or solar panels, which need regular sunlight to remain "on."

HyperSolar's lead scientist, Syed Mubeen, a chemical engineering professor at the UI, says although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, the amount of pure hydrogen in the Earth's atmosphere is very low (about 0.00005 percent), so it must be produced artificially.

Currently, most hydrogen power is made from fossil fuels in a chemical process called steam reforming, which emits carbon dioxide. Even though the end product is hydrogen, its inputs make it much less environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Hydrogen also can be made using electrolysis, which requires electricity and highly purified water to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Although this is a sustainable process (assuming the electricity is produced from a ), the cost of materials associated with the system are expensive—a major barrier to the affordable production of renewable hydrogen.

"Developing systems is a goal worldwide," Mubeen says. "Currently, we understand how clean energy systems such as solar cells, wind turbines, et cetera, work at a high level of sophistication. The real challenge going forward is to develop inexpensive clean that can be cost competitive to fossil fuel systems and be adopted globally and not just in the developed countries."

With HyperSolar, Mubeen and his team at the UI's Optical Science and Technology Center are developing a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to manufacture hydrogen by drawing inspiration from plants. So far, the researchers have created a small solar-powered electrochemical device that can be placed in any type of water, including seawater and wastewater. When sunlight shines through the water and hits the solar device, the photon energy in sunlight takes the water (a lower ) and converts it to hydrogen (a higher energy state), where it can be stored like a battery. The energy is harvested when the hydrogen is converted back into its lower energy state: water. This is similar to what plants do using photosynthesis, during which plants use photons from the sun to convert water and into carbohydrates—some of which are stored in fruits and roots for later use.

Mubeen says his team is currently working to lower costs even further and to make their process more robust so it can be produced on a mass scale. That way, it eventually could be used as renewable electricity or to power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

"Although H2 can be used in many forms, the immediate possibility of this renewable H2 would be for use in fuel cells to generate electricity or react with CO2 to form liquid fuels like methanol for the transportation sector," he says. "If one could develop these systems at costs competitive to fossil fuel systems, then it would be a home run."

Explore further: Research sets new record for generation of fuels from sunlight

Related Stories

Solar-powered hydrogen production with improved efficiency

December 22, 2015

Hydrogen could potentially provide a readily available, clean form of energy derived from solar power. To achieve this, scientists need to find a highly efficient, low-cost way of splitting water into its constituent parts ...

Carbon leads the way in clean energy

March 22, 2016

Groundbreaking research at Griffith University is leading the way in clean energy, with the use of carbon as a way to deliver energy using hydrogen.

Recommended for you

Modified biomaterials self-assemble on temperature cues

March 19, 2018

Biomedical engineers from Duke University have demonstrated a new approach to making self-assembled biomaterials that relies on protein modifications and temperature. The hybrid approach allows researchers to control self-assembly ...

Programming DNA to deliver cancer drugs

March 19, 2018

DNA has an important job—it tells your cells which proteins to make. Now, a research team at the University of Delaware has developed technology to program strands of DNA into switches that turn proteins on and off.

Identifying 'designer' drugs taken by overdose patients

March 19, 2018

Drug overdoses are taking a huge toll on public health, with potent synthetic drugs posing a particular threat. Medical professionals are scrambling to meet the growing demand for emergency room treatment, but they're hampered ...

The Swiss army knife of smoke screens

March 18, 2018

Setting off smoke bombs is more than good fun on the Fourth of July. The military uses smoke grenades in dangerous situations to provide cover for people and tanks on the move. But the smoke arms race is on. Increasingly, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2016
This seems more like an ad for HyperSolar than a news article. What exactly has this team done?

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.