Seawater might conjure images of beaches, deserted islands and sunken ships, but if scientists at the ACES Centre at the University of Wollongong succeed, soon it’ll mean one more thing: fuel.
The researchers have discovered a method of splitting the molecules in seawater into their basic components – hydrogen and oxygen – and using those gases as an energy source.
Professor Gordon Wallace is the Director at ACES Centre:
“The obvious abundance of seawater makes it attractive as a fuel to go into these new devices that we’re creating, and the ability to create or generate hydrogen and oxygen just by simply using sunlight is a tremendous breakthrough.”
The result itself isn’t new – scientists have been splitting water molecules since the 1800s. But previous methods were not efficient. More energy went into the process than came out of it.
That’s where the newer method shines. It takes little energy, and outputs much more. And the key to the process? Plants – or, more precisely, chlorophyll.
Professor David Office, Chief Materials Investigator, says that by mimicking the way plants convert sunlight to material, they’ve been able to dramatically improve energy efficiency:
“And so we’ve been able to make an artificial chlorophyll, and put that artificial chlorophyll onto this plastic material here, and by applying much, much less energy than we would have had to in the past, but in the process of course if we’re using seawater in the cell.”
Better yet, because the method uses seawater, it wouldn’t impact scarce fresh water supplies, says Professor Wallace:
“And the ability to use seawater, of course, circumvents one of the big limitations of water splitting at the moment, and that is the need to use fairly pure water supplies. It’s a tremendous breakthrough to be able to use this as the fuel going into these cells.”
The scientists hope that the method can be adopted soon for use in hydrogen fuel cells, as a much cheaper, more abundant and cleaner source of power for automobiles.