Water-splitting hydrogen breakthrough

Commercial plants could produce hydrogen from solar power.
Commercial plants could produce hydrogen from solar power. Photo credit: University of Colorado Boulder
Commercial plants could produce hydrogen from solar power.

Commercial plants could produce hydrogen from solar power. Photo credit: University of Colorado Boulder

A University of Colorado Boulder team has developed a new technique that uses the power of sunlight to efficiently split water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen, paving the way for the broad use of hydrogen as a clean, green fuel.

The team has devised a solar-thermal system in which sunlight could be concentrated by a vast array of mirrors onto a single point atop a central tower up to several hundred feet tall. The tower would gather heat generated by the mirror system to roughly 1,350ºC, then deliver it into a reactor containing chemical compounds known as metal oxides, said Professor Alan Weimer, research group leader.

As a metal oxide compound heats up, it releases oxygen atoms, changing its material composition and causing the newly formed compound to seek out new oxygen atoms, said Weimer. The team showed that the addition of steam to the system would cause oxygen from the water molecules to adhere to the surface of the metal oxide, freeing up hydrogen molecules for collection as hydrogen gas.

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