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Toyota and DIFFER partner on direct solar production of hydrogen from humid air, rather than water

The Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) is partnering with Toyota Motor Europe (TME) to develop a device that absorbs water vapor, and splits it into hydrogen and oxygen directly using solar energy.

The LIFT (Launchpad for Innovative Future Technology) research proposal has now been rewarded a grant from the NWO ENW PPS Fund.

In this project, DIFFER and TME are exploring an innovative way to produce hydrogen directly out of humid air. The motivation for this research project is twofold. New sustainable fuels are needed 1) to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and 2) to lower the emission of greenhouse gasses.

One of these sustainable fuels is hydrogen, which can be used to store renewable energy. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, the energy is released in the form of electricity, with clean water as the only emission.

In their respective search for solutions, TME’s Advanced Material Research division met with DIFFER’s Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy Applications group, headed by Mihalis Tsampas. This group had been working on a method to split water in the vapor phase instead of the liquid phase, which is much more common.

Working with gas instead of liquid has several advantages. Liquids introduce some technical problems, like unwanted bubble formation. Furthermore, by using water in the gas phase instead of the liquid phase, we do not need expensive installations to purify the water. And finally, since we only use the water that is present in the surrounding air, our technology is also applicable in remote places where no water is available.

—Mihalis Tsampas, Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy Applications Group

Over the last year, DIFFER and TME demonstrated in a joint feasibility study that the envisioned principle works. The researchers developed a novel solid-state photoelectrochemical cell that was able to first capture water from ambient air and then generate hydrogen upon illumination by sunlight.

This first prototype achieved 70% of the performance that is obtained when an equivalent device is filled with water. The system consists of polymeric electrolyte membranes, porous photoelectrodes and water absorbing materials, combined in a specially designed membrane-integrated device.

Pioneering the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen sedan, Toyota is also actively contributing to finding ways to produce hydrogen without the use of fossil fuels. This fits in with the challenges of the Toyota Environmental Challenge 20503, aiming for zero CO2 emissions throughout the entire life cycle of our vehicles.

Hydrogen production based on renewable energy sources significantly helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. With this kind of fundamental research we are working towards a hydrogen society by developing affordable and easy-to-use hydrogen applications for our operations as well as for the customer.

—Isotta Cerri, General Manager, Advanced Material Research, Toyota Motor Europe

In the next stage of the project, the partners intend to improve the set-up significantly.

In our first prototype, we used photoelectrodes that are known to be very stable. But the material used only absorbs UV light, which makes up less than five percent of all of the sunlight that reaches Earth. The next step therefore is to apply state of the art materials and optimize the system architecture to increase both the water intake and the amount of sunlight that is being absorbed.

—Mihalis Tsampas

When this hurdle has been overcome, the research will shift toward upscaling the technology. Current photoelectrochemical cells that are able to produce hydrogen are very small, around a square centimeter in size. In order to become economically viable, their size must be scaled up by at least two to three orders of magnitude.

DIFFER is one of the nine research institutes of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). The institute performs cross-disciplinary research on materials, processes and systems for a global sustainable energy infrastructure, in close partnership with (inter)national academia and industry. The research at DIFFER covers both the conversion and storage of sustainable energy in solar fuels, and the generation of clean, safe and abundant power through nuclear fusion.



I've been reading about these photochemical (and artificial photosynthetic) things for years and years now.  Nothing ever seems to get out of the laboratory.


Improved Graphene membranes have the potential capability to separate H2 from normal air and supply enough H2 to extend FCEVs range to infinity?

When done, it could put batteries and other sources of energy storage-production out of competition?

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