Stanford developing 'solar gas tanks'

June 27, 2011 7:11:26 AM PDT
It sounds like an environmentalist's dream, a solar panel that can make hydrogen for fuel cell cars. However, refineries like the idea too, because hydrogen is an essential ingredient to make clean burning gasoline.

"There will be times when you've got extra sunlight and you don't need that electricity," said Chris Chidsey, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, talking about solar cells. "In the middle of the day, nobody's yet turned on the air conditioning or no one's got lights on. So, we need a fuel as a way to store electricity. We need fuels."

What if you could submerge solar panels in water to turn the water into hydrogen instantly? That is what's going on at one Stanford lab. We've all done the experiment in school. Put two electrodes into H20. The H comes out one side. The O comes out the other. But, it's not worth it, because it takes more energy to do this than you get back out of the gases.

A solar panel makes things better, but the ultimate is to place the solar panel in the water. Now, you're cookin' with gas, but for just a minute. The oxygen in the water soon eats away the photocell. The pitting shows up as these blue spots.

"If it's not protected, we've found they last tens of minutes at best," Childsey explained.

So, Chidsey, with grad students Jonathan Prange and Vincent Chen, borrowed clever technology from computer chip makers.

"My colleague Paul McIntyre," Chidsey said, "took a technique that's used in the semiconductor industry, called atomic layer deposition, and put an ultra-thin, but very uniform, layer of titanium dioxide on the surface of a silicon photovoltaic."

It's just a few atoms thick, the same way that Intel does on its advanced chips. That did the trick and the reaction now lasts for days. Chidsey acknowledged that more development is needed before this is commercialized.

"This is just one piece of what would be a system for generating solar-based fuels," he said.

Still, it appears that we will be able to pump solar energy directly into fuel tanks. Isn't that a gas?


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