Purdue's Hugh Hillhouse has developed microscopic solar cells for making hydrogen, leading to more efficient biofuel production.
Seeking ways to improve biofuel production, Purdue researchers say a healthy helping of hydrogen could be just what the doctor ordered

Purdue University Professor of Chemical Engineering Rakesh Agrawal and his team have proposed a method of boosting the conversion of plant material, or biomass, into fuel by increasing the amount of hydrogen used in the process. In fact, Agrawal predicts that additional hydrogen can increase efficiency of the conversion process known as gasification by as much as one third.

Gasification involves partial combustion of the biomass material, converting it into biofuel, as well as the byproducts of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. In current gasification processes, approximately two thirds of the carbon energy in the biomass is lost in the form of CO2 and CO.

Agrawal and his associates have postulated that additional hydrogen introduced in the gasification process would combine with the carbon dioxide to produce more carbon monoxide. That CO would then react with extra hydrogen, creating more biofuel and water.

The ability to make three gallons of fuel from the same amount of biomass that currently produces only two gallons would be an impressive feat, increasing the biofuel supply while reducing the amount of real estate required to grow the biomass material by a third. However, the Purdue team's plan is only feasible if a plentiful source of relatively inexpensive hydrogen can be secured.

To solve that problem, Agrawal is working with fellow Purdue Professor Hugh Hillhouse, an expert in developing nanomaterials for photovoltaics and thermoelectric energy production. in a recent interview with New Scientist Magazine, Agrawal said that he and Hillhouse are developing low-cost "spray-on" solar cells that could provide a cheap source of energy for making hydrogen.

Last month, the team successfully tested the spray-on nanomaterial, which produced an electric charge when exposed to light. Details of the Purdue team's findings are due to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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