A University of Rochester team has been awarded $1.7 million to generate hydrogen fuel with sunlight using artificial photosynthesis and nanotubes. Generating hydrogen without using a fossil fuel is not easy. Using sunlight to split hydrogen off from water has been done before, but the process has not been cheap or efficient.
They propose to change that by dividing the nanoscale process into three separate modules that can be manipulated separately to isolate the process of gathering sunlight from the process of generating hydrogen.
This way they can better control each step.
Kara Bren cautions that it has to be efficient 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.”
She describes the 3 steps like this:
1. 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 electron.
2. 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.
3. 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 power plants of the future.
By separating the first and third modules with the nanotube membrane, they hope this isolation will allow the team to maximize the system’s light-harvesting abilities without altering its hydrogen-generation abilities, and vice versa.
Image: Steve Jurvetson
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