Researchers from Masdar Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a project to turn water into fuel in the form of hydrogen, using sunlight.

As part of the project, the team has identified materials and developed unique structures which can optimize the water splitting process in order to capture the hydrogen component and use it as a fuel source.

Masdar Institute microsystems engineering assistant professor Dr Jaime Viegas said: “The research is not yet mature, but we are looking to build the capability and know-how not only for water-splitting but also for other photochemical reactions of interest, like wastewater treatment and high-value chemical production.”

The team has been assessing the use of catalysts which would make water splitting process more efficient and sustainable using solar energy and produce hydrogen.

As a result, they have identified a number of metal oxide materials that can act as effective catalysts and configurations capable of capturing more of the sun’s energy to facilitate the chemical reaction to split water into its component elements.

Viegas added: "If we could use water-splitting to produce hydrogen from water with minor pretreatment and limited requirement for fossil fuel sources, then we could open up significant avenues for sustainable and affordable hydrogen fuel use.”

The researchers used wafer surface patterned in unique nanocones. These nanocones are coated with various metal oxides in order to tune the optical and electronic properties to achieve the strongest water splitting.

The Masdar Institute said in a statement: “This interplay of matter and light produces what is known as a ‘plasmonic effect’, which provides the surface energy boost needed to break the water bonds to produce hydrogen and oxygen.”

The work has resulted in improved hydrogen generation using some of the identified metal oxides.

Image: Researchers developed novel materials and structures to support generation of sustainable hydrogen fuel. Photo: courtesy of Masdar Institute.