Hydrogen Fuel from Sunlight? Scientists Make a Breakthrough
Could you ever imagine a world in which sunlight is used to produce hydrogen fuel? This future might sound like something out of a science-fiction film - but it's already here.
The European Union has recently awarded a €5 million prize to a group of scientists who found a way to do something mind-boggling: turning sunlight into hydrogen fuel. The technology mimics natural photosynthesis where plants transform sunlight into the energy they need to grow.
The technology works by creating a new form of man-made “supermolecule” which can absorb light and break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. While previous forms of ‘artificial photosynthesis’ were often extremely slow and expensive, this new technique is seen by scientists as a major breakthrough. Not only does it enable hydrogen fuel to be produced quickly, but it allows all this to be done without any greenhouse gas emissions.
But the term ‘photosynthesis’ is not entirely accurate to describe this process. While photosynthesis is the process by which plants, algae, and some bacteria convert light energy into sugars needed to grow – this form of ‘photosynthesis’ uses an artificial molecule to create hydrogen. The only by-product, amazingly, is still pure oxygen.
This technology is being refined even further. Scientists are continually creating new versions of this man-made “supermolecule” which are expected to be even more efficient - transforming sunlight into hydrogen at an even quicker rate.
The consequences for the hydrogen industry are profound. Cars, trucks, boats, airplanes and even industrial steel production would be able to run on a clean fuel that only produces water vapor as a by-product. This technology has the potential to decarbonize a variety of industries, mitigating the effects of climate change on future generations.
For school-aged students currently studying how hydrogen works, breakthroughs like these allow for a clearer picture of where a career in renewable energy might take them. For scientific discoveries like these to happen, STEM education is not enough. A STEAM education (which teaches students how to think critically in using STEM knowledge to solve real-world problems) will help develop the next generation of hydrogen research leaders.