As we become increasingly convinced of the dangers presented by fossil fuels, scientists have been hard at work searching for renewable alternatives. From wind-power to solar energy, the effort is being made to harness our planet energy more sustainably than before. Now, a new breakthrough has been made: the ability to produce hydrogen fuel from unfiltered seawater.

Hydrogen problems?

Hydrogen fuel has long been considered a possible alternative to other energy sources. Unlike most fuels, the use of hydrogen produces no damaging emissions, only water vapor. This makes it a very attractive solution to current energy woes. But until now, it has had some clear disadvantages. Normally, hydrogen production is not a very cost-efficient procedure, and worse, the process itself often makes use of non-renewable resources: natural gases.

This is why the work of Yang Yang, a researcher at the University of Central Florida, is so important. Yang’s breakthrough is the creation of a new hybrid nanomaterial which uses the power of solar energy to create hydrogen fuel from the sea. That is, the technology puts an existing renewable energy source to work creating another one.

How it works

Yang’s nanomaterial is not unique in making hydrogen fuel from water. Researchers have been aiming to perfect solar hydrogen splitting for years, and have had success when applying the technique to purified water in lab conditions. The method involves combining the water with a photocatalyst - a material which causes a chemical reaction when exposed to light.

Until now these photocatalysts could not do their jobs properly when exposed to seawater. This is where Yang’s nanomaterial comes in. The details are complicated, but essentially this new material can convert a much wider range of light into energy. While a normal photocatalyst would be unable to work effectively with the different quality of light it is exposed to in seawater, the new nanomaterial is durable enough to operate under these conditions.

If Yang’s nanomaterial is truly reliable, this could be a major breakthrough for renewable energy. Of course, this would require a concerted effort to deploy the technology on a larger scale. Might we soon be able to take fuel directly from the ocean? Humanity is already able to creatively harness energy from across the globe. This breakthrough brings us a step closer to mastering the potential energy of the seas and of the world as a whole.

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