Researchers from RMIT University in Australia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have developed a solar paint that harvests hydrogen from moisture in the air by splitting water molecules.
“The paint is a photo-catalytic material,” explains Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh in the RMIT School of Engineering. “It means that it can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen molecules, when it receives energy from the sunlight.”
Powerful attraction: Sulphur and water
The material is also made of a polymeric structure with sulphur ending: “Sulphur loves to attract water molecules,” notes the professor. With its very high affinity with water, the sulphur thus absorbs water molecules and hold on to them. “So the material soaks up all the water molecules around it and turns them into hydrogen fuel and oxygen gases,” Kalantar-zadeh says.
Asked what is truly new and unique about the technology that had never been accomplished prior to this research endeavor, Kalantar-zadeh responds, “Producing fuel from vapor.” In a groundbreaking feat, the team was able to generate what the professor terms “the cleanest fuel” — hydrogen gas — only from the moisture in the surrounding air, with the help of energy from the sun.
The cleanest energy to reduce the carbon footprint
The MIT/RMIT team’s research advance could bring about the promise of reducing the carbon footprint by producing the cleanest energy possible, yet: “Water vapor is generated by the sun, and we transform that water vapor with a catalytic material using the sun’s energy,” Kalantar-zadeh says.
“More than that,” the expert continues, “we store the energy in hydrogen fuel, which is the cleanest storage method in comparison with batteries, which are dirty, dangerous and have the highest carbon footprint for their manufacturing.”
Changing the future of solar energy
The professor agrees that his team’s research breakthrough could have remarkable impact on the design of the next generation of solar technologies: “This technology has the potential to become more dominant than solar cells as a green form of producing energy,” Kalantar-zadeh states. “Also, it produces hydrogen that can be stored and transformed back to energy, which is the cleanest approach.”
Looking ahead, Kalantar-zadeh wants to open up his team’s research success to the science community. “We have not patented this,” he points out. “So now, thousands of other researchers can jump on the introduced technology and tweak it to increase the efficiency and customize it for any application they wish to.”
The work is detailed in the paper “Surface Water Dependent Properties of Sulfur-Rich Molybdenum Sulfides: Electrolyteless Gas Phase Water Splitting,” published in the ACS Nano journal.
Written by Sandra Henderson, Research Editor, Solar Novus Today