December 7, 2023


Future technology in a historical environment –

© Virgil Andre / University of Cambridge

What looks like a piece of plastic waste floats on the River Cam in Cambridge, England. But it’s a small hydrogen plant powered by solar energy,

Scientists around the world are searching for new ways to produce hydrogen and other gases that can be used as fuel without using fossil fuels. One of them is solar fuel technology. Based on the example of plant photosynthesis, the energy of sunlight is used to split water and thus produce hydrogen gas. By reacting simultaneously with carbon dioxide, synthesis gas can also be produced from hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can then be further processed into methanol and other liquid fuels, for example.

The floating structure here on the river is a newly developed system that enables exactly this in the smallest of spaces and in a swimmable form. Virgil Andrei of the University of Cambridge and colleagues bonded two photoelectrodes and catalysts to a thin flexible polymer layer and protected them with a special top layer.

The result is about 30 to 100 milligrams per square centimeter, light and fluffy units that can float on water. When sunlight falls on these floating units, it triggers an electrochemical reaction that splits water and carbon dioxide. Depending on the catalyst, the system essentially converts the molecules into hydrogen or into a synthesis gas.

According to the researchers, their “artificial leaves” are as effective as the real leaves of the plant in terms of this conversion. If confirmed, ultra-lightweight and buoyant solar-to-fuel modules could open up new opportunities for using sunlight to produce “green” hydrogen and other clean fuels. Thin, flexible miniature reactors can be used as floating hydrogen or synthesis gas plants in lakes, in ports, or even at sea.

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