Along with solar energy, hydrogen is seen by many – including many research scientists – as a fuel of the future: it can power vehicles and heat homes without creating noxious emissions.
Until now, the challenge has been to derive hydrogen in a cheap and easy way.
But scientists at KU Leuven, a Dutch research university, have joined solar power and hydrogen generation in a single solar panel that produces hydrogen as well as electricity.
They’ve joined a high-efficiency solar panel with a sort of fuel cell that harvests hydrogen from water vapor in the air. About 15 percent of incoming solar radiation runs the cell, which can collect as much as 250 liters of hydrogen on a good day. This hydrogen then could be used to heat homes in chilly northern European winters.
Hydrogen’s advantage: it can be stored indefinitely in a tank, just as fuel oil is in homes now. Storing solar-made electricity needs a battery that costs thousands of dollars and loses some of the stored current over time.
The researchers are planning to test their calculation that 20 such panels on a house could provide more than enough heat and power to replace other energy sources.
With GM and other automakers developing hydrogen-powered vehicles, the Dutch innovation could find a ready market, especially in climates where sunshine or wind is too fickle to meet a household’s full energy needs affordably.