Guosong Zeng and Francesca Toma test the artificial photosynthesis device.

Cheaper hydrogen fuel invention grows more efficient with use

New technologies can cost a lot to create, especially in emerging fields. But an artificial photosynthesis device developed at the University of Michigan is showing promise as a practical and cheaper tool for producing hydrogen fuel.

The water-splitting device can make hydrogen directly from light and fresh or saltwater. It uses a cheap and abundant semiconductor that’s widely found in everyday electronics. University of Michigan electrical and computer engineering professor Zetian Mi developed the technology and demonstrated that it doubles the efficiency and stability of similar artificial photosynthesis technologies.

The innovation was used in a recent study and researchers called it a “game-changer,” especially because of the materials’ stability.

“The unique platform we have developed over the past decade is not only suited for solar hydrogen production, but has been used very effectively for converting carbon dioxide to clean chemicals and fuels, such as methane, methanol, formic acid and syngas,” Mi said in a news release. “What strikes me most, however, is their stability in numerous studies performed by us and our collaborators.”

The research team was surprised to find that the material becomes more efficient at performing artificial photosynthesis with more use. Usually, this type of technology’s efficiency plummets after a few hours.

“The collaboration helped to identify the fundamental mechanisms behind why this material gets more robust and efficient instead of degrading. The findings from this work will help us design and build more efficient artificial photosynthesis devices at a lower cost,” Mi said.

The researchers already have plans to advance this discovery by testing the material in a water-splitting fuel cell. They will also experiment with other materials.

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