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The question of “What will be the next big source of energy?” rattles scientists even now. Our stash of fossil fuels is dwindling, and multiple options have been proposed. Yet, doubts over how accessible they would be is a major setback. One cannot place windmills in areas that are not windy. Nuclear power plants are costly and need a lot of space.
A new technology developed by chemical engineers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne might be a contender for the next-gen fuel. For years, scientists have wanted to develop a device that can harvest water from the air and convert it into hydrogen, which is a green fuel. Now, chemical engineer Kevin Sivula and his team of scientists have tried to develop a device that can do just that.
They took their inspiration from leaves. Leaves absorb carbon dioxide and water and use it to form sugar in the presence of sunlight. In a way, they absorb solar energy and store it in form of sugars. The device this team has created does something similar, and stores solar energy in form of hydrogen. To achieve this, the scientists made a fusion of solar panels with transparent electrodes. Electrodes are materials that help in conducting electricity through liquid or gas. What makes these electrodes special? First, these electrodes are porous and are made of a mesh of quartz fibers. This amps up the contact between water in the atmosphere and the electrode. The next tweak is the transparency of the electrodes. Other electrodes are opaque and so light cannot pass through them. In this case, sunlight passes through the electrode. When the device is kept in sunlight, it absorbs water from the air to produce hydrogen.
Although an impressive feat, there is a long way to go. Only 12% of solar energy is converted to hydrogen. Science is magical, and pulling fuel from thin air is one of science’s newest tricks.