Scientists from the University of Cambridge have developed a method for producing clean hydrogen from biomass using solar power.

The new method, which is based on simple photocatalytic conversion process, involves addition of catalytic nanoparticles to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended.

This allows nanoparticles to absorb energy from solar light and rearranges the atoms in the water and biomass to form hydrogen fuel and other organic chemicals, such as formic acid and carbonate.

The resulting hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, and could be used for power.

University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry joint lead author Dr David Wakerley said: “Our system is able to convert the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful.

“We have specifically designed a combination of catalyst and solution that allows this transformation to occur using sunlight as a source of energy.”

As part of the research, the team used different types of biomass, including pieces of wood, paper and leaves, and placed in test tubes and exposed to solar light.

The team said that the biomass eliminated the need for processing in advance.

University of Cambridge Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry head Dr Erwin Reisner said: “Our sunlight-powered technology is exciting as it enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions. We see it as a new and viable alternative to high temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production.

“Future development can be envisioned at any scale, from small scale devices for off-grid applications to industrial-scale plants, and we are currently exploring a range of potential commercial options."

The university is now seeking potential partner for commercialization of the technology.

Image: A piece of leaf exposed to a solar light source. Photo: courtesy of University of Cambridge.