A Ton of Pros to the Proton: A New Method in Harvesting Hydrogen Energy

Photo Courtesy of Maniac World

Discussions on clean energy often gives the impression that an abundance of bright ideas about ways to escape our societal addiction to extensive fossil fuel use are out there, but they are just too unfeasible to put into action.  Although we hear frequently about new solar, wind hydrogen-fueled or geothermal energy generation methods, you rarely see these innovations make an impression on a mass commercial scale.

What caught my eye was a unique method of capturing solar energy, established by Professor Wang and colleagues at the UC San Diego School of Engineering.  They effectively created miniscule ‘forests’ of nanotubes to collect the sun’s powerful radiation to assist the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.  Key ingredients to these tree-like nanostructures: silicon and zinc-oxide. 

A major setback in producing clean hydrogen energy is the cost associated with the reactions in hydrogen fuel cells, which typically use platinum catalysts.  Silicon and zinc-oxide are immensely more abundant natural materials, and as a result save a pretty penny in the power generation process. 

The functional premise of these silicon-zinc oxide nanotrees is to essentially mock the natural process of photosynthesis.  Since these tiny tubes are positioned vertically in dense arrangements, they excel at adsorbing and grabbing onto sunlight, as opposed to just reflecting it.  Their structure enhances surface area for chemical reactions by about 400,000 times, making them incredibly efficient.  

A climatic long-term advantage to the technology is its capability of reducing CO2 through the conversion of CO2 and H2O from the atmosphere into hydrocarbon fuel, which collects as a gas within the tubes.  In this manner, a mock form of photosynthesis is achieved.  By using solar power, the method also skips the fossil-fueled hydrogen splitting methods also in effect today, further limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Although cost figures weren’t presented in the report, I hope this advancement is carried through to large scale use in hydrogen fuel production.  Professor Wang’s research brings enormous insight via this nanoscale breakthrough in substituting clean energy with fossil-fueled hydrogen splitting.  It just goes to show that sometimes the smallest innovations can help us solve some of our largest problems. 

Jeffrey Leon