Now, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have found a low-cost way to solve one half of the equation, using sunlight to efficiently split off oxygen molecules from water. The finding, published recently in Nature Communications, represents a step forward toward greater adoption of hydrogen as a key part of our energy infrastructure.
The key to this breakthrough came through a method of creating electrically conductive paths through a thick silicon dioxide layer that can be performed at low cost and scaled to high manufacturing volumes. To get there, Yu and his team used a technique first deployed in the manufacturing of semiconductor electronic chips. By coating the silicon dioxide layer with a thin film of aluminum and then heating the entire structure, arrays of nanoscale “spikes” of aluminum that completely bridge the silicon dioxide layer are formed. These can then easily be replaced by nickel or other materials that help catalyze the water-splitting reactions.
When illuminated by sunlight, the devices can efficiently oxidize water to form oxygen molecules while also generating hydrogen at a separate electrode and exhibit outstanding stability under extended operation. Because the techniques employed to create these devices are commonly used in manufacturing of semiconductor electronics, they should be easy to scale for mass production.
The team has filed a provisional patent application to commercialize the technology.
Improving the way hydrogen is generated is key to its emergence as a viable fuel source. Most hydrogen production today occurs through heating steam and methane,
As early as the 1970s, researchers were investigating the possibility of using solar energy to generate hydrogen. But the inability to find materials with the combination of properties needed for a device that can perform the key chemical reactions efficiently has kept it from becoming a mainstream method .