Belgian scientists use solar panels to make hydrogen gas from air

Posted: March 7, 2019 by oldbrew in Energy, innovation, research
Tags: ,

These types of tech ‘breakthroughs’ tend to have a low survival rate in the real world, so we await any developments – or not.

Bioscience engineers at KU Leuven have created a solar panel that produces hydrogen gas from moisture in the air, reports Science Business.

After ten years of development, the panel can now produce 250 litres per day – a world record, according to the researchers.

Twenty of these solar panels could provide electricity and heat for one family for an entire winter. 

Under a watery sun, Professor Johan Martens and his research team roll the solar panel onto the lawn in front of the Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis at KU Leuven. The device looks like an ordinary solar panel. The engineers have attached a flask with water to the device so that we can see the hydrogen bubbles escape. A meter indicates the quantities. After a couple of seconds, the first bubbles begin to rise to the surface.

Hydrogen gas is an energy vector that can easily be stored and transported, and it can be converted at will into both electricity and heat. The gas doesn’t release any greenhouse gases or toxic substances, provided that you use clean energy to produce it.

That’s what Professor Martens’s team has developed: a device that turns sunlight and water vapour into hydrogen gas in a sustainable way. “It’s a unique combination of physics and chemistry. In the beginning, the efficiency was only 0.1 per cent, and barely any hydrogen molecules were formed. Today, you see them rising to the surface in bubbles. So that’s ten years of work – always making improvements, detecting problems. That’s how you get results.” 

A traditional solar panel converts between 18 to 20 per cent of the solar energy into electricity. If you then have to use that electric power to split the water into hydrogen gas and oxygen, you lose a lot of energy.

The KU Leuven bioscience engineers solved this exact problem by designing a solar panel of 1.6 m² that converts 15 per cent of the sunlight straight into hydrogen gas. That’s a world record in the category of devices that don’t require precious metals or other expensive materials.

Hydrogen gas from renewable energy sources – green hydrogen gas – has been a promising prospect on the energy market for years, but the real breakthrough hasn’t happened yet. Hydrogen gas is considered to be expensive and difficult to produce and store.

Today, most hydrogen gas is produced using oil and gas. ‘Grey’ hydrogen gas, in other words – not a big win for the climate or the environment. The KU Leuven researchers believe this is about to change. 

Last week, Toyota announced that it wants to produce hydrogen gas with a prototype designed by Johan Martens’s team in 2014. This device is a little screen (10 cm2) that the engineers will scale up to a large panel.  In Leuven, they already have one of these large panels.

On campus, we see the meter rise steadily on the device in front of us. The bubbles keep coming, despite the watery sun. “The panel produces around 250 litres per day over a full year. That’s a world record,” says KU Leuven researcher Jan Rongé.

“Twenty of these panels produce enough heat and electricity to get through the winter in a thoroughly insulated house and still have power left. Add another twenty panels, and you can drive an electric car for an entire year.”

Of course, all this is still based on calculations. But soon, the researchers will start a pilot project to field-test the theory. In any case, a benefit of hydrogen gas is that it can replace fossil fuels.

Full report here.

  1. JB says:

    Belching scientists produce gas using solar energy…

  2. willybamboo says:

    Actually, if it works, its the only renewable I could love. The two problems with wind and solar energy are geographic footprint and no practical storage. There are more problems but they are all rooted in these two problems.

    This would be a perfect solution for off-grid electric generation. If fact, I believe you can blend hydrogen with natural gas or propane. You could use a solar array of this type to supplement natural gas generation. This s a very cool experiment.

  3. oldbrew says:

    In the northern UK solar power meters don’t move much in the winter months. Low sun, if any some days, and short daylight hours.

  4. Stephen Richards says:

    250 ltrs/day ? Only another 40 10^9 to go.

  5. ivan says:

    Hydrogen gas is an energy vector that can easily be stored and transported

    Hydrogen gas has the strange tendency to escape if the containing vessel isn’t rather special. Can we assume that they have also overcome the power requirements for pumping the hydrogen to where it is needed as a fuel and all the necessary safety requirements – makes a wonderful fuel-air explosive.

    I suppose that some stupid green zealots will end up using it, if it ever becomes commercial, to add to their virtue signalling portfolio.

  6. Graeme No.3 says:

    We have a politician here who thinks that coal can be turned into hydrogen CHEAPLY. The hydrogen can then be liquified (BP minus 255℃ from memory) and shipped to Japan, so they can have a carbon free economy.
    I am not allowed to express my opinion in my local or national newspaper. They won’t print it.

  7. MrGrimNasty says:

    The amount of power doesn’t sound credible, obviously even if it were 100% efficient (impossible) it couldn’t exceed the equivalent energy of the w/m2 nature supplies.

  8. hunterson7 says:

    My bullshit meter is pegged out in the red zone.

  9. hunterson7 says:

    The only interesting aspect of this is the possibility that it is not merely yet another example of academics rent seeking for climate research €, but may also have some interesting work with low cost catalysts.

  10. oldbrew says:

    California’s San Bernardino County slams the brakes on big solar projects

    California’s largest county has banned the construction of large solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres of private land, bending to the will of residents who say they don’t want renewable energy projects industrializing their rural desert communities northeast of Los Angeles.

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