A University of Colorado Boulder team has developed a radically 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 CU-Boulder 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 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,350 Celsius), then deliver it into a reactor containing chemical compounds known as metal oxides, said CU-Boulder 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 — which could be produced by boiling water in the reactor with the concentrated sunlight beamed to the tower — 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.
“We have designed something here that is very different from other methods and frankly something that nobody thought was possible before,” said Weimer of the chemical and biological engineering department. “Splitting water with sunlight is the Holy Grail of a sustainable hydrogen economy.”
A paper on the subject was published in the Aug. 2 issue of Science. The team included co-lead authors Weimer and Associate Professor Charles Musgrave, first author and doctoral student Christopher Muhich, postdoctoral researcher Janna Martinek, undergraduate Kayla Weston, former CU graduate student Paul Lichty, former CU postdoctoral researcher Xinhua Liang and former CU researcher Brian Evanko.
One of the key differences between the CU method and other methods developed to split water is the ability to conduct two chemical reactions at the same temperature, said Musgrave, also of the chemical and biological engineering department. While there are no working models, conventional theory holds that producing hydrogen through the metal oxide process requires heating the reactor to a high temperature to remove oxygen, then cooling it to a low temperature before injecting steam to re-oxidize the compound in order to release hydrogen gas for collection.
“The more conventional approaches require the control of both the switching of the temperature in the reactor from a hot to a cool state and the introduction of steam into the system,” said Musgrave. “One of the big innovations in our system is that there is no swing in the temperature. The whole process is driven by either turning a steam valve on or off.”
“Just like you would use a magnifying glass to start a fire, we can concentrate sunlight until it is really hot and use it to drive these chemical reactions,” said Muhich. “While we can easily heat it up to more than 1,350 degrees Celsius, we want to heat it to the lowest temperature possible for these chemical reactions to still occur. Hotter temperatures can cause rapid thermal expansion and contraction, potentially causing damage to both the chemical materials and to the reactors themselves.”
In addition, the two-step conventional idea for water splitting also wastes both time and heat, said Weimer, also a faculty member at CU-Boulder’s BioFrontiers Institute. “There are only so many hours of sunlight in a day,” he said.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and by the U.S. Department of Energy.