This Device Eats Polluted Air And Spits Out Power

It may be small, but it holds some big potential. UAntwerpen and KU Leuven

Clean air and alternative energy production are two big challenges facing the planet. So a team of Belgian researchers have taken to killing two birds with one stone by creating a proof-of-concept device that eats up air pollution and spits out energy in the form of hydrogen gas.

Researchers from the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven (University of Leuven) developed a device that purifies contaminated air and produces hydrogen gas, along with other byproducts. On top of that, it’s all activated by light. The findings are published in the journal ChemSusChem.

The palm-sized box contains a photo-electrochemical cell to turn organic contaminated gas into hydrogen using a similar process to the technology found in solar panels. Instead of producing electricity, however, it generates power that is stored as hydrogen gas. It all sounds complicated, but it’s remarkably straightforward in practical terms.

“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane," professor Sammy Verbruggen, lead author of the study, explained in a statement. "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 hydrogen buses, for example."

He added: "In the past, these cells [found in the membrane] were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air." 

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel when it’s burned with oxygen, although the process of obtaining the hydrogen often produces carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Using a hydrogen fuel cell, you can convert hydrogen's chemical energy into electrical energy using the reaction of positively charged hydrogen ions with an oxidizing agent. Much of the buzz surrounding hydrogen-fueled cars has died down over the past few years, primarily because electric cars have risen as a lower cost and more efficient alternative. Additionally, hydrogen fuel cells produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which is another part of the problem. 

Nevertheless, this new gadget holds some real potential. The small hand-held device can’t do much on its own and currently relies on artificial light to function. However, now that some of the basics are sorted, the researchers want to up the scale of their device and its applications.

Professor Verbruggen concluded: "We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimeters. 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."

Edited 12/05/2017: The article originally stated that burning hydrogen fuel produces oxygen. It has now been changed to say the process of obtaining the hydrogen can often produce carbon dioxide.

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