The Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) is partnering with Toyota Motor Europe (TME) to develop a device that produces hydrogen fuel from humid air.

You put a dedicated device in contact with air, expose it to sunlight and it starts producing fuel, for free: that’s the basic idea behind the research being conducted jointly by the two companies.

The partnership aims to develop a device that absorbs water vapour and splits it into hydrogen and oxygen directly using the sun’s energy.

The motivation for this research is twofold, the two companies explained. New sustainable fuels are needed to firstly decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, and secondly to lower the emission of greenhouse gasses.

One of these sustainable fuels is hydrogen, which can be used to store renewable energy. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, the energy is released in the form of electricity, with clean water as the only emission.

Mihalis Tsampas, Head of DIFFER’s Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy Applications group, said, “Working with gas instead of liquid has several advantages. Liquids introduce some technical problems, like unwanted bubble formation.”

“Furthermore, by using water in the gas phase instead of the liquid phase, we do not need expensive installations to purify the water. And finally, since we only use the water that is present in the surrounding air, our technology is also applicable in remote places where no water is available.”

DIFFER artificial leaf lab

Source: DIFFER/Bram Lamers

Over the last year, DIFFER and TME demonstrated in a joint feasibility study that the envisioned principle works.

The researchers developed a novel solid-state photoelectrochemical cell that was able to first capture water from ambient air and then generate hydrogen upon illumination by sunlight.

This first prototype achieved an impressive 70% of the performance that is obtained when an equivalent device is filled with water.

The system consists of polymeric electrolyte membranes, porous photoelectrodes and water absorbing materials, combined in a specially designed membrane-integrated device.

“Pioneering the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen sedan, Toyota is also actively contributing to finding ways to produce hydrogen without the use of fossil fuels,” said Isotta Cerri, General Manager of Advanced Materials Research at Toyota Motor Europe.

“This fits in with the challenges of the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, aiming for zero CO2 emissions throughout the entire life cycle of our vehicles.”

“Hydrogen production based on renewable energy sources significantly helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. With this kind of fundamental research, we are working towards a hydrogen society by developing affordable and easy-to-use hydrogen applications for our operations as well as for the customer.”

In the next stage of the project, the partners now intend to “significantly improve” the prototype. Once this hurdle has been overcome, the research will shift toward upscaling the technology.

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