A new innovation could scrub the air of pollution while creating sustainable energy.
A phenomenal new innovation takes on two pernicious environmental causes in one fell swoop — cleansing the air of pollution, while producing a byproduct of hydrogen, which can be stored and used to produce renewable energy.
Researchers from the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven in Belgium have now invented a multi-purpose device and process from nanoparticles to mitigate pollution in the environment while looking to a cleaner energy future — and all it takes is sunlight.
Rampant air pollution — particularly evident in places like Beijing, where smog sometimes envelops the city, forcing people to wear masks or stay indoors — has been a focus of the environmental movement for decades.
Indeed, the use of leaded gas in the 1970s so deteriorated air quality, lead was eventually all but removed from gasoline. Thick, choking smog from manufacturing and industry also raised public concern in the United States, controls and regulations had to be implemented to ensure cleaner air.
But pollution persists in the U.S. and around the planet for a number of reasons — rules, guidelines, and penalties often aren’t sufficient means to ensure the curtailment of contamination. And while many nations have made strides to derive power from renewable, sustainable sources — such as wind and solar — others, like the U.S., lag at least somewhat behind.
This innovation, however, offers hope.
“According to the team that developed the process,” Treehuggerreports, “the nanomaterials used as a catalyst in the device’s membrane are essentially the same as those used previously to extract hydrogen from water. However, the research lead, Professor Sammy Verbruggen, says that it’s not only possible to use the same type of materials to produce hydrogen from polluted air, but it’s also ‘even more efficient.’ The team’s device is a rather small-scale prototype, only a few square centimeters in size, but with some additional improvements could eventually be scaled up ‘to make the process industrially applicable.’”
Verbruggen explains, “We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane. Air is purified on one side, while on the other side hydrogen gas is produced from a part of the degradation products. This hydrogen gas can be stored and used later as fuel, as is already being done in some De Lijn hydrogen buses, for example.”
According to the team, the process’ ingenuity centers around the membrane and its particular nanomaterials, and the fact the process — which appears intricate and complex — is, in actuality, incredibly simple.
“These catalysts,” Verbruggen continues, speaking of the nanomaterials, “are capable of producing hydrogen gas and breaking down air pollution. In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air.”
All that’s needed is to expose the device to light — and because similarities in the underlying technology resemble solar panels, the research team seeks to power it with sunlight.
Where pollution could have been a hindrance, this process thrives on the lower pure oxygen density in contaminated air. Per the study,
“Without applying any external bias, organic contaminants are degraded and hydrogen gas is produced in separate electrode compartments. The system works most efficiently with organic pollutants in inert carrier gas. In the presence of oxygen, the cell performs less efficiently but still significant photocurrents are generated, showing the cell can be run on organic contaminated air.”
If a need exists, innovators will find a way to answer the call — and while air pollution might have seemed a malicious, monstrous foe, these researchers believe this groundbreaking process and the new device will eventually be efficacious on an industrial scale. Verbruggen notes,
“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. At a later stage, we would like to scale up our technology to make the process industrially applicable. We are also working on improving our materials so we can use sunlight more efficiently to trigger the reactions.”
Verbruggen and the team of Belgian innovators, in the meantime, provide optimism that the detrimental, virulent, and even deadly effects of air pollution aren’t insurmountable, after all. (Image credit: Maxpixel/Creative Commons Public Domain.)