Researchers in Belgium have engineered a device that uses sunlight to purify polluted air and, in the process, produces hydrogen gas that can be stored and used for power. Two teams of researchers separately investigating processes for air purification and hydrogen production combined their efforts to create the new device.
At the University of Antwerp, scientists had been working on ways to combine light energy with nanomaterials to purify air. At the University of Leuven, another team worked on a tiny fuel cell with a membrane that could produce hydrogen gas from water. The merged technologies accomplish both tasks in the same device.
The Antwerp work was focused on air polluted with volatile organic compounds, which are small molecules produced by chemicals in adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copy machines, and cleaning products, among other things. In sufficient quantities, these compounds are the source of a variety of health problems including what is known as sick building syndrome.
The new device uses a light-activated catalyst on a membrane to pull apart the small organic molecules. When this happens, protons are set free and seep through the membrane to collect on the other side where a different catalyst converts them to hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, the purified air exits through a tube.
They still need to develop an engineering solution for collecting and storing the hydrogen gas, but if this device can be commercialized, it can truly kill two birds with one stone. Running on only the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, it can help clean up the environment and provide a clean energy source at the same time.
Photo courtesy of UAntwerp/KU Leuven.