Re­searchers tap lim­it­less hy­dro­gen

China Daily European Weekly - - COMMENT - Barry He

Col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Bri­tish, Chi­nese leads to new method for crack­ing wa­ter mol­e­cules

Acol­lab­o­ra­tion of Bri­tish and Chi­nese re­searchers has taken the world one step closer to a fu­ture in which clean re­new­able en­ergy is a wide­spread re­al­ity. First an­nounced in Novem­ber, an in­or­ganic sul­phur ma­te­rial has been used as a cat­a­lyst to split wa­ter mol­e­cules to ob­tain pure hy­dro­gen. A pure hy­dro­gen fuel would solve the global is­sue of green­house gases, and also come with an un­lim­ited sup­ply of pre­cur­sor ma­te­rial — just wa­ter.

The im­pli­ca­tions of this first step could be huge, and it comes at a time when in­ter­na­tional re­search bud­gets around the world are dwin­dling.

The tech­nol­ogy could be the start of the next sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion since the dis­cov­ery of coal, so it’s im­por­tant to know just how this process works, and what is im­por­tant in the new dis­cov­ery.

Wa­ter-split­ting tech­nol­ogy, de­spite the re­cent an­nounce­ment, ac­tu­ally goes back 3 bil­lion years. The process of pho­to­cat­alytic wa­ter split­ting oc­curs nat­u­rally in pho­to­syn­the­sis, so the com­plex bi­o­log­i­cal path­ways that con­vert pho­tons into chem­i­cal en­ergy are hap­pen­ing in plants all around us all the time.

Sci­en­tists have pre­vi­ously man­aged to mimic the ad­vanced se­crets of bio­chem­i­cal evo­lu­tion. How­ever, we are still a long way from un­lock­ing the full set of se­cret in­struc­tions for clean en­ergy pro­duc­tion, honed first by the cyano- bac­te­ria in Earth’s an­cient Archean pe­riod.

The Archean ge­o­log­i­cal pe­riod be­gan im­me­di­ately af­ter the Hadean pe­riod 4.6 bil­lion years ago — (named for Hades the Greek god of the un­der­world, be­cause of Earth’s hellish con­di­tions at the time). Wa­ter-split­ting tech­nol­ogy ap­peared not long af­ter our planet be­gan form­ing as a life­less rocky in­ferno, mean­ing that sci­en­tists are still work­ing out how to copy a primeval en­ergy pro­duc­tion process that’s dated closer to the for­ma­tion of the Earth and moon than hu­man ex­is­tence.

How­ever, re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Liver­pool, Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don and East China Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy are now closer to such cos­mic genius with the new ma­te­rial re­searchers used in the pho­to­cat­alytic wa­ter-split­ting process. The new sul­phur-based cat­a­lyst main­tains the ef­fec­tive­ness of in­or­ganic cat­a­lysts but also re­tains the sim­plic­ity of­fered by or­ganic cat­a­lysts. The process is ef­fi­cient: It merely re­quires reagents such as sodium sul­fide (a com­mon and fairly cheap ma­te­rial used in the pa­per and pulp in­dus­try) to re­place the sul­phur that de­cays in the cat­alyz­ing process. Main­te­nance of the process is much more ef­fi­cient than pre­vi­ous meth­ods used to ex­tract hy­dro­gen, re­searchers say, and in the­ory could be much cheaper if even­tu­ally brought to a com­mer­cial level.

The re­search was funded partly by the China Schol­ar­ship Coun­cil through a pro­gram that at­tracts Chi­nese PhD stu­dents to carry out stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Liver­pool Ma­te­ri­als In­no­va­tion Fac­tory.

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