A groundbreaking solar-powered device can address global water scarcity and energy needs. Developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the device can purify contaminated water or polluted seawater into clean drinking water and hydrogen fuel, a clean and sustainable energy source.
The device is about the size of a briefcase and floats to take in the water it needs for purification and power generation. It holds promise to provide developing and remote areas with clean water that can reduce water-borne illness and a reliable and replenishable power source.
The device operates off-grid, making it ideal for use in remote or developing regions where access to clean water and electricity is limited. Nearly 2 billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, and 775 million live without electricity.
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The device mimics photosynthesis in plants by using a floating solar vapor generator to harvest the sun’s energy. This energy is then used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, producing clean hydrogen fuel while simultaneously purifying the water for drinking or other purposes.
Tests conducted with water from the River Cam in central Cambridge, England, demonstrated the device’s tolerance to pollutants and its ability to operate effectively in various water conditions.
“It’s so tolerant of pollutants, and the floating design allows the substrate to work in very cloudy or muddy water,” Chanon Pornrungroj, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “It’s a highly versatile system.”
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The device also represents a significant advancement in solar energy use.
“The light-driven process for making solar fuels only uses a small portion of the solar spectrum — there’s a whole lot of the spectrum that goes unused,” said Ariffin Mohamad Annuar, co-author of the study.
The device produces hydrogen through water splitting, a process where water molecules are broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. It uses a photocatalyst on a carbon mesh that absorbs light and heat, which then produces the water vapor the photocatalyst needs to create hydrogen. It could provide users with a clean power source, eliminating the risks that come from kerosene and other dirty fuels that produce considerable amounts of indoor air pollution.
While still in its early stages of development, the device holds immense promise for addressing the global water and energy crises. Professor Erwin Reisner, who led the research team, emphasized the device’s potential impact, saying, "The climate crisis and issues around pollution and health are closely related, and developing an approach that could help address both would be a game-changer for so many people."
The research was supported by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program, the European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, the Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme and the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability.
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