Researchers Produce Hydrogen Using Solar Energy and Agricultural Waste

The novel technique reduces the energy needed to extract hydrogen from water by 600%


Engineers from the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) have developed a novel method to produce hydrogen from water utilizing only solar power and agricultural waste such as manure or husks.

This novel technique claimed to reduce the energy required to extract hydrogen from water by 600%, holds significant potential for sustainable and climate-friendly chemical production.

Hydrogen-based fuels are widely regarded as one of the most promising clean energy sources. However, producing pure hydrogen gas is traditionally an energy-intensive process that often depends on coal or natural gas, necessitating large amounts of electricity.

This conventional method poses significant environmental challenges.

The multi-institutional research team, led by UIC engineer Meenesh Singh, detailed the new process for green hydrogen production in a paper published in “Cell Reports Physical Science.

This method leverages a carbon-rich substance known as biochar to reduce the electricity required for water electrolysis significantly—the process of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The process achieves net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by utilizing renewable energy sources such as solar power and capturing byproducts for other uses.

“We are the first group to show that you can produce hydrogen utilizing biomass at a fraction of a volt,” said Singh. “This is a transformative technology.”

Electrolysis, the cornerstone of the hydrogen production method, typically requires an electric current generated by fossil fuels at an industrial scale.

Recent scientific advancements have decreased the voltage necessary for water splitting by introducing a carbon source into the reaction. However, this process usually involves coal or costly chemicals and emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

The researchers altered the process using biomass from common waste products instead. Mixing sulfuric acid with agricultural waste, animal waste, or sewage produces a slurry-like substance rich in carbon, termed biochar.

The team experimented with biochar derived from sugarcane husks, hemp waste, paper waste, and cow manure.

All these biochar variants reduced the power needed for water conversion to hydrogen. Cow dung is the most effective, decreasing the electrical requirement sixfold to approximately one-fifth of a volt.

The researchers demonstrated that the reaction could be powered by a standard silicon solar cell generating roughly 15 milliamps of current at 0.5 volts—less power than an AA battery. “It’s very efficient, with almost 35% conversion of the biochar and solar energy into hydrogen,” noted co-author Rohit Chauhan.

“This method not only diversifies the utilization of biowaste but also enables the clean production of various chemicals beyond hydrogen,” said Nishithan Kani, co-lead author of the paper.

Research sponsor Orochem Technologies has filed for patents on the processes for producing biochar and hydrogen. The UIC team plans to test these methods on a larger scale, potentially revolutionizing the clean energy landscape.

Recently, researchers at Tohoku University in Japan developed a data-driven model that can predict barriers related to dehydrogenation, a chemical reaction that involves the release of hydrogen in magnesium hydride, a promising material for solid-state hydrogen storage.

Earlier this year, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy launched pilot projects to test the viability of using green hydrogen and its derivatives in the shipping and steel sectors.