New material mimics photosynthesis, produces hydrogen

With the UN Climate Change conference happening this week at Paris, the spotlight is being focused the search for renewable sources of energy, especially ones that will fuel, no pun intended, our every growing number of gadgets and gizmos. As if by happy coincidence, researchers from Florida State University, headed by Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Jose L. Mendoza-Cortes almost serendipitously came across a new thin material that could imitate the way a plant uses sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter of which can be used for fuel.

The process is more formally known as photosynthesis in science textbooks and is one that is familiar with anyone who has had science classes. Plants use their leaves to trap sunlight in order to convert water into glucose which it then uses for its own nutrition. The by-product of this process is, of course, oxygen that we use for respiration. With this material, however, oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2) are produced instead.

Mendoza-Cortes' discovery almost came by accident. They were, indeed, searching for a way to harness sunlight to break down water into its component molecules. The challenge was to use a material that didn't rust due to the oxidation process which produces oxygen. For that, the team used manganese oxide, also known as birnessite, which they stacked in layers, similar to solar cells.

What they discovered, however, was that as they peeled off the layers one by one, the sunlight absorption rate actually happened faster, reverse of what happens with solar panels. The results is that the birnessite material can be as thin as it can be and still be just as effective in splitting water. The hydrogen produced from the process can be transfered and burned as fuel.

At the moment, however, everything is still inside laboratories. In the future, however, if the material does turn out as promised, it can be simply rolled off on roofs to soak under the sun and do its magic. It will practically be self-sustaining. Best of all, it won't have any emissions, like carbon dioxide or other forms of waste, having no negative impact on the environment.

SOURCE: CNBC, Florida State University