A team of chemists in Cambridge have developed a way of turning biomass and organic material such as food waste into hydrogen using solar power, as Stuart McDill reports.
A piece of paper in a test tube. The tiny bubbles are hydrogen - and they are causing some excitement. Making hydrogen from biomass, like plant or food waste or paper, has long been the goal of many scientists. A goal this team in Cambridge have achieved - with nanoparticles added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR MORITZ KUEHNEL: "So the photocatalysts, which are nanoparticles about 5 nanometres in size, what they do is they absorb sunlight and they create excited charges and these charges on one hand oxidize the biomass to carbon dioxide and on the other hand reduce water to hydrogen." The pair decided to test their catalyst's ability to produce hydrogen from the most difficult substance they could think of, cellulose fibres. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR DAVID WAKERLEY: "Can we just go outside and cut some grass and throw that into a vial and see if it makes hydrogen and it did. So that's the point at which we were like actually we've found something very interesting here." The process overturns the long held belief that recovering hydrogen from waste took too much power to be a sustainable energy source. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR MORITZ KUEHNEL: "You don't need to really process your biomass, you just literally stick into in a test tube and shine a light at it. It's very, very simple, so that can be done by anyone." Biomass is the original source of fossil fuels - which are slowly running out. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR MORITZ KUEHNEL: "Mankind has been using biomass as fuel for a long time, people used to burn wood and everything. So I think revamping this old approach of using biomass and mixing it with other approaches that might be the future to generate a mix of renewable energy." If it can be scaled up the process could provide access to storable clean power - even the possibility of garbage-powered cars. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCH CHEMIST, DR DAVID WAKERLEY: "That would be a very nice idea actually if you had a thing on the back of the car that you threw your rubbish in and your car drove away. So, potentially, we'd be very excited about that kind of technology and it is something that everyone has obviously. Everyone has biomass waste, everyone has food waste and all of these things can be converted to hydrogen in this new system." A UK patent application has been filed and talks are under way with a potential commercial partner.