In yet another twist on the “artificial leaf” theme, a research team from Australia has developed a new way to use solar energy for producing hydrogen, potentially leading to lower costs. The news comes just in time to contribute to yet another lively discussion on CleanTechnica about the high cost of hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles.
The latest discussion was sparked by a Toyota official’s recent admission that the cost of hydrogen for FCEVs will start at about $50 per fill-up for its new FCEV sedan, covered here at CleanTechnica under the title Toyota: Hydrogen Fuel Will Be Costly (here’s an earlier one, btw). Of the 80 comments we received so far, a substantial number revolved around the energy needed for getting to the hydrogen in the first place. That’s a legit issue given the current state of technology, which relies heavily on hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels.
There are a number of promising up-and-comers in the alternative hydrogen sourcing field that could lead to lower costs, including the use of solar power to split hydrogen from water, so let’s see if this new take on solar will add to the discussion.
Using Solar Power To Produce Hydrogen
We’ve previously covered the “artificial leaf” hydrogen production approach developed by Harvard (formerly MIT) professor Daniel Nocera. That one deploys solar energy in a photoelectrochemical process. The artificial leaf concept from the Australian team takes a different tack.
The researchers, from Australian National University Research School of Biology, approached the photosynthetic process from, you guessed it, the biological angle. The team focused on a ubiquitous, naturally-occurring protein called ferritin, which almost every living organism uses to store iron.
By replacing the iron with manganese, the team first tweaked ferritin to mimic the site in the photosynthetic process that splits water.
To complete the tailoring, the team also used the light-sensitive pigment zinc chlorin to replace a haem group that binds with ferritin (haem is British for heme — think hemoglobin and you’re on the right track).
Initial tests demonstrated that exposing the custom-made ferritin to light resulted in a charge transfer, mimicking the flow of electrons in photosynthesis.
If this is starting to ring some bells, why it seems like only yesterday (because it was) that we took note of a similar artificial leaf project using a strain of cyanobacteria found in a hot spring in Japan.
Like Dr. Nocera’s artificial leaf, the initial research is aimed at developing a low cost system that could be affordable in developing countries. The team also sees potential for scaling up. Here’s the vision:
Co-researcher Professor Ron Pace said the research opened up new possibilities for manufacturing hydrogen as a cheap and clean source of fuel.
“This is the first time we have replicated the primary capture of energy from sunlight,” Professor Pace said.
“It’s the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon.”
Professor Pace said large amounts of hydrogen fuel produced by artificial photosynthesis could transform the economy.
There you go again, right? The vision of a hydrogen economy just won’t die. We’re guessing that battery EVs have a head start that will put a heavy damper on the FCEV market for now (except for maybe in California), and the current high cost of hydrogen certainly doesn’t help any.
Then again, look what happened to battery EVs when automotive technology first took off in the late 19th century.
It looked like BEVs had the field to themselves when along comes this funny stuff called gasoline…
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