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Scientists use solar power to produce hydrogen from biomass

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Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a technique that uses solar power to produce clean hydrogen from biomass.

In a news release on Tuesday the university said that up until now lignocellulose – the main component of plant biomass – had only been converted into hydrogen via a gasification process that uses high temperatures to "decompose it fully."

The university said that the new technique involved the addition of catalytic nanoparticles to alkaline water containing biomass.

The solution is put in front of a lab based light mimicking solar light, and was described as being "ideal" for absorbing the light and turning the biomass into gaseous hydrogen.

"There's a lot of chemical energy stored in raw biomass, but it's unrefined, so you can't expect it to work in complicated machinery, such as a car engine," David Wakerley, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Chemistry, said in a statement.

"Our system is able to convert the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful," Wakerley added.

"We have specifically designed a combination of catalyst and solution that allows this transformation to occur using sunlight as a source of energy. With this in place we can simply add organic matter to the system and then, provided it's a sunny day, produce hydrogen fuel."

Different types of biomass, including wood and leaves, were used, and did not need to be processed prior to the experiments, the university said.

"Our sunlight-powered technology is exciting as it enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions," Erwin Reisner, head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry, where the technology was developed, said.

"We see it as a new and viable alternative to high temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production," Reisner added, before going on to say that a range of potential commercial options were being explored.