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Hydrogen Fuel from Artificial Photosynthesis

If you are like most people, your first thought upon reading the word "photosynthesis" probably has to do with plants…and you would be right. The term is used to refer to the process by which plants produce nutrients through the direct action of sunlight.

artificial leaf
However, photosynthesis can actually be used for an application that is more directly beneficial to humans, which is as a source of hydrogen fuel.

Among the organizations making significant strides in this technology is the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, where researchers have had some success producing hydrogen from sunlight using artificial photosynthesis in conjunction with nanotechnology. Much of the funding for this project-as much as $1.7 million in fact-comes from the Department of Energy or DOE, and already the rest of the world is taking notice.

The process used by the University of Rochester researchers to produce hydrogen fuel from artificial photosynthesis basically involve a system comprised of three modules, which essentially splits water into its hydrogen and oxygen with the use of sunlight. The first module utilizes a re-engineered form of chromophore, which is the substance that plants use to soak up sunlight and produce free electrons.

The second module for its part is comprised of carbon nanotube membranes, which serves to channel the electrons to the third module. It is this module that is responsible for actually splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. Proponents of this system claim that this artificial photosynthesis process is a lot less complicated and more cost-effective than other system currently under consideration.

It is still a bit too early to tell whether or not such systems will come into widespread public use, but many significant developments in this field are expected in the near future, especially with continued federal funding of related projects.

Another artificial photosynthesis method for producing hydrogen utilizes what is called the artificial leaf nano structures. This process was developed by still other researchers working out of the Jiao Tong University in China, and it involves a slightly different method of hydrogen production using artificial leaves.

The idea behind this process is actually quite similar to the process used in the production of hydrogen using sunlight-and solar panels-to generate electricity, which then splits water into its oxygen and hydrogen component via a process called electrolysis. What makes the Shanghai Jiao Tong University project so different however is that it utilizes a system similar in structure to that of a plant leaf.

And since nature basically does pretty much the same thing by producing hydrogen from real plant leaves, this technology is considered to be one of the most promising ones in the field of hydrogen fuel technology. The process basically involves drying plant leaves and heating them to a temperature of 500°C, which burns away most of the plant material, leaving a framework of crystallized titanium dioxide.

There still remains a lot of work to be done with regard to using artificial photosynthesis as an efficient hydrogen fuel production method. Nevertheless, it is expected that large-scale production of hydrogen fuel using these and other similar methods is on the way soon.

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