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Cambridge team demonstrates light-driven photoreforming of unprocessed biomass to H2 at room temperature

14 March 2017

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has reported the light-driven photoreforming of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin to H2 using semiconducting cadmium sulfide quantum dots in alkaline aqueous solution.

The system operates under visible light, is stable beyond six days and is even able to reform unprocessed lignocellulose, such as wood and paper, under solar irradiation at room temperature, presenting an inexpensive route to drive aqueous proton reduction to H2 through waste biomass oxidation. A paper on their work is published in the journal Nature Energy.

Biomass conversion is one of the most affordable routes to generate sustainable H2, but this process requires the demanding chemical transformation of lignocellulose. Lignocellulose is the main constituent of biomass and can be cultivated worldwide, even on unfertilized, marginal land. Lignocellulose conversion to H2 has predominantly been realized through gasification, which uses high temperatures (>750 ˚C) to decompose its organic structure and release H2, alongside other gases, such as CO, CO2 and CH4. In the interest of increasing the selectivity and efficiency of this conversion, it is possible to replace the thermal input with sunlight. Solar light offers an essentially inexhaustible source of globally available energy, and therefore the photoreforming of biomass-derived compounds is a fast-growing field of research.

Photoreforming requires a photocatalyst able to generate holes to oxidize lignocellulose and use the resultant electrons to reduce aqueous protons to H2. Lignocellulose therefore adopts the role of a hole scavenger, providing a continuous supply of electrons for fuel production. Thus far, this field has focused on H2 evolution from substrates that could be derived from lignocellulose, such as methanol, glycerol or glucose, but lignocellulose refining is expensive and inefficient, usually requiring acid hydrolysis, enzymatic hydrolysis or pyrolysis to produce more manageable substrates. Viable H2 production systems should therefore reform lignocellulose directly, to compete with thermochemical processes. This is challenging at ambient temperatures, as the structure of lignocellulose has evolved to prevent its consumption by microbial and animal life. … Examples of the direct photoreformation of lignocellulose or even purified cellulose to H2 are consequently rare, and until now required a ultraviolet-light-absorbing TiO2 architecture loaded with expensive, non-scalable noble-metal catalysts, such as Pt and RuO2.

To address these issues, the Cambridge team developed a photocatalytic system based on semiconducting CdS quantum dots (QDs) able to photoreform cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin into H2 at room temperature. CdS is an inexpensive, visible-light-absorbing photocatalyst with a bulk electronic bandgap of around 2.4 eV.

The catalytic nanoparticles were added to alkaline water in which the biomass was suspended. This was then placed in front of a light in the lab which mimicked solar light.

Photoreforming of lignocellulose to H2 on CdS/CdOx. a, Lignocellulose exists as microfibrils in plant cell walls and consists of cellulose surrounded by the less crystalline polymers hemicellulose and lignin. b, These components can be photoreformed into H2 using semiconducting CdS coated with CdOx. Light absorption by CdS generates electrons and holes, which travel to the CdOx surface and undertake proton reduction and lignocellulose oxidation, respectively. c, This combination creates a highly robust photocatalyst able to generate H2 from crude sources of lignocellulose when suspended in alkaline solution and irradiated with sunlight. Wakerley et al. Click to enlarge.

The nanoparticle is able to absorb energy from solar light and use it to oxidize the biomass, providing electrons for the reduction of aqueous protons to generate H2.

The team achieved high rates of H2 evolution, without the photocorrosion of CdS or noble-metal co-catalysts, through use of highly basic conditions that synergistically enabled formation of robust CdS/CdOx and dissolution of lignocellulose.

The oxidation reaction generates CO2 that is sequestered as carbonate, resulting in an overall negative CO2 balance in the atmosphere when taking into account the CO2 fixation required for biomass growth.

Noting that the system’s tolerance to a range of substrates is “particularly appealing” for H2 generation without need for lignocellulose processing, the researchers are now focusing on replacing the Cd with a more environmentally benign metal.

The technology was developed in the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. The head of the laboratory, Dr. Erwin Reisner, observed:

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.

With the help of Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialization arm of the University, a UK patent has been granted and talks are under way with a potential commercial partner.


  • David W. Wakerley, Moritz F. Kuehnel, Katherine L. Orchard, Khoa H. Ly, Timothy E. Rosser & Erwin Reisner (2017) “Solar-driven reforming of lignocellulose to H2 with a CdS/CdOx photocatalyst” Nature Energy 2, Article number: 17021 doi: 10.1038/nenergy.2017.21

March 14, 2017 in Biomass, Catalysts, Hydrogen, Hydrogen Production, Solar, Solar fuels | Permalink | Comments (5)


If this can be done at scale, this could speed up the transition to hydrogen vs. gas for transportation. Would really help cut CO2 emissions.

Could support cheaper electric cars using fuel cells, instead of batteries. Having multiple paths to electric cars is good, and this looks like a great way to generate the hydrogen.

However lots of issues still about storing and piping hydrogen since the molecule is so small.

Yes, small distributed to large centralized facilities could produce all the H2 required for future FCEV fleet?

Would it be cheaper than with up to date electrolyzers and low cost surplus REs?

Another interesting research project that resulted in a peer reviewed publication. There is no information about the efficiency of this process which would lead me to believe that is lower than generating electricity with solar cells.

Don't store nor transport hydrogen, use CO2 to make liquid hydrocarbon fuels, easier to store and transport.

Make and burn more liquid hydrocarbon fuels???

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