The environmental peril that the human race and our planet face comes with two edges of the sword; Earth is warming due to the overuse of fossil fuels, and the air and water we all need to survive is becoming ever more polluted. In order to get us out of this mess, we need to combat both of these issues.

Enter: A group of researchers at the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven. They have come up with an ingenious idea to tackle both issues at the same time.

They have built a device that uses chemical reactions to purify air where harmful pollutants exist, and simultaneously produce hydrogen gas as a bi-product, which can be used as a fuel.

USING NANOMATERIALS

In normal circumstances, the way to produce hydrogen gas is via ‘hydrolysis’. This is where an electrical current is charged through water, forcing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules to split, thus creating the gas.

The Antwerp and Leuven team was using different nanomaterials to try and make the process more efficient when they noticed that their nanomaterial worked even better with polluted air.

HOW IT WORKS

From there, they created a two-sided device that would maximise their nanomaterial’s efficiency. On one side, the nanomaterial, titanium dioxide, splits apart a wide variety of organic pollutants using nothing but the power of the sun. On the other side, the energy generated from this reaction is used to produce hydrogen gas.

“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane,” explains Professor Sammy Verbruggen (UAntwerp/KU Leuven). “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.”

Currently the device is still in the beginning stages of testing, but the team of researchers are confident that the idea is scalable – which is of course critical to its success.

“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. 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.”

This technology has the potential to be used on an industrial scale, removing pollutants from the air before they get into and damage our lungs. The hydrogen gas bi-product is just a bonus.