Revolutionary Solar-Powered Device Transforms Polluted Water Into Clean Hydrogen Fuel & Purified Water

Floating, Solar Powered Device That Can Turn Contaminated Water or Seawater Into Clean Hydrogen Fuel and Purified Water

Cambridge researchers have created a solar-powered device that converts contaminated water into clean hydrogen fuel and drinkable water, offering a sustainable solution to global energy and water crises. Credit: Chanon Pornrungroj/Ariffin Mohamad Annuar

A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge has created an innovative floating device that harnesses solar power to convert contaminated water or seawater into clean hydrogen fuel and purified water.

This device is particularly beneficial for areas with limited resources or without access to the grid, as it can operate with any open water source and does not rely on external power sources.

Innovation Inspired by Nature

It takes its inspiration from photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into food. However, unlike earlier versions of the ‘artificial leaf’, which could produce green hydrogen fuel from clean water sources, this new device operates from polluted or seawater sources and can produce clean drinking water at the same time.

Tests of the device showed it was able to produce clean water from highly polluted water, seawater, and even from the River Cam in central Cambridge. The results are reported in the journal Nature Water.

Technical Challenges and Breakthroughs

“Bringing together solar fuels production and water purification in a single device is tricky,” said Dr Chanon Pornrungroj from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, the paper’s co-lead author. “Solar-driven water splitting, where water molecules are broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, need to start with totally pure water because any contaminants can poison the catalyst or cause unwanted chemical side-reactions.”

“In remote or developing regions, where clean water is relatively scarce and the infrastructure necessary for water purification is not readily available, water splitting is extremely difficult,” said co-lead author Ariffin Mohamad Annuar. “A device that could work using contaminated water could solve two problems at once: it could split water to make clean fuel, and it could make clean drinking water.”

Solar Powered Device Produces Clean Water and Clean Fuel

A floating, solar-powered device that can turn contaminated water or seawater into clean hydrogen fuel and purified water, anywhere in the world, has been developed by researchers. Credit: Chanon Pornrungroj/Ariffin Mohamad Annuar

Pornrungroj and Mohamad Annuar, who are both members of Professor Erwin Reisner’s research group, came up with a design that did just that. They deposited a photocatalyst on a nanostructured carbon mesh that is a good absorber of both light and heat, generating the water vapor used by the photocatalyst to create hydrogen. The porous carbon mesh, treated to repel water, served both to help the photocatalyst float and to keep it away from the water below, so that contaminants do not interfere with its functionality.

In addition, the new device uses more of the Sun’s energy. “The light-driven process for making solar fuels only uses a small portion of the solar spectrum – there’s a whole lot of the spectrum that goes unused,” said Mohamad Annuar.

The team used a white, UV-absorbing layer on top of the floating device for hydrogen production via water splitting. The rest of the light in the solar spectrum is transmitted to the bottom of the device, which vaporizes the water.

“This way, we’re making better use of the light – we get the vapor for hydrogen production, and the rest is water vapor,” said Pornrungroj. “This way, we’re truly mimicking a real leaf, since we’ve now been able to incorporate the process of transpiration.”

Potential Global Impact

A device that can make clean fuel and clean water at once using solar power alone could help address the energy and the water crises facing so many parts of the world. For example, the indoor air pollution caused by cooking with ‘dirty’ fuels, such as kerosene, is responsible for more than three million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Cooking with green hydrogen instead could help reduce that number significantly. And 1.8 billion people worldwide still lack safe drinking water at home.

“It’s such a simple design as well: in just a few steps, we can build a device that works well on water from a wide variety of sources,” said Mohamad Annuar.

“It’s so tolerant of pollutants, and the floating design allows the substrate to work in very cloudy or muddy water,” said Pornrungroj. “It’s a highly versatile system.”

“Our device is still a proof of principle, but these are the sorts of solutions we will need if we’re going to develop a truly circular economy and sustainable future,” said Reisner, who led the research. “The climate crisis and issues around pollution and health are closely related, and developing an approach that could help address both would be a game-changer for so many people.”

Reference: “Hybrid photothermal–photocatalyst sheets for solar-driven overall water splitting coupled to water purification” by Chanon Pornrungroj, Ariffin Bin Mohamad Annuar, Qian Wang, Motiar Rahaman, Subhajit Bhattacharjee, Virgil Andrei and Erwin Reisner, 13 November 2023, Nature Water.
DOI: 10.1038/s44221-023-00139-9

The research was supported in part by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program, The European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, the Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme, and the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability. Erwin Reisner is a Fellow of St John’s College. Chanon Pornrungroj is a member of Darwin College, and Ariffin Mohamad Annuar is a member of Clare College.

3 Comments on "Revolutionary Solar-Powered Device Transforms Polluted Water Into Clean Hydrogen Fuel & Purified Water"

  1. Will this benefit the many, or, make a few rich?

  2. True that!
    Lord knows I’d love to invest in them, ride that coattail until I could afford to live. But. I know doing the right thing is more important. Besides, (grin) the fame and endorsement I’d love to live and reap would be more than any one needs. In short; to the first and above comment: HERE HERE! (tink) Good on ya. (nod)

  3. I want to congratulate the author on a well written article. It is a great breakdown that makes it sound ‘simple.’ Even though, it’s really really really not. At all.

    But, it makes sense and it has enough techese to be accessible for people to understand generally.

    It is very very exciting to read because IF it were ‘common,’ there would be no reason for governments, except for contract disputes and borders, and boundaries necessary for personal freedoms. Having naturally sourced energy like this, the only big problem is distribution and maintenance. Many control factors of companies and corporations would be neutered. Small communities would be self-sufficient. That’s a huge threat to the global interests today.

    These guys better have been very … distributed … in saving their information, data, and innovations, and have very good personal security. Their best shot at getting to live and enjoy the fruits of their work, is by giving it to literally EVERYONE. Somehow. Perhaps, it being a large group effort will shelter it???

    I wish we could ask Tesla a LOT of questions, right now.

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