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Scientists use solar energy to produce clean hydrogen from biomass (downtoearth)

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a sunlight-powered technology to produce clean fuel from unprocessed biomass.

The technology claims producing clean fuel, which is relatively cheap and sustainable, from biomass. The University of Cambridge said in a release that so far, lignocelluloses—the main component in plant biomass—was converted into hydrogen gas through a gasification process, which uses high temperatures for decomposition. However, the technology developed at the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry uses a rather simple photocatalytic conversion process, said the release.

The joint lead author, David Wakerley from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge says, “There's a lot of chemical energy stored in raw biomass, but it is unrefined. So, you cannot expect it to work in complicated machinery such as a car engine.”

The new technology converts the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful. “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,” he adds.

Catalytic nanoparticles are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This solution is put in front of a light which mimics solar light, allowing the solution to absorb the light and convert the biomass into gaseous hydrogen. The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors like carbon monoxide, allowing it to produce power, said the release.

The nanoparticles are able to absorb energy from the solar light and use it to undertake complex chemical reactions. In this experiment, the solar energy rearranges the atoms in the water and biomass to form hydrogen fuel and other organic chemicals, including formic acid and carbonate.

The team used various types of biomass, including pieces of wood, paper and leaves.

The head of the laboratory, Erwin Reisner, says, “Our sunlight-powered technology enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions. We see it as a new and viable alternative to high-temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production.”

Reisner adds that from small-scale devices for off-grid applications to industrial-scale plants, they are exploring a range of potential commercial options.

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