Penn State researchers, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, developed a device that can split water and produce hydrogen. The research is based on the principles of photosynthesis, which occurs in nature, and allows plants, trees, algae, and even certain bacteria to turn sunlight into usable energy. The new process is performed artificially. Although the research is an extremely early phase of development, it creates new possibilities for the future of sustainable mobility.

With nature operating at just one to three percent efficiency with natural photosynthesis, scientists have a long way to go to make this process potent enough to be practical. “This is a proof-of-concept system that is very inefficient. But ultimately, catalytic systems with 10 to 15 percent solar conversion efficiency might be achievable,” said Thomas E. Mallouk, the DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics. “If this could be realized, water photolysis would provide a clean source of hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight.”

Researchers are working to salvage the idea of a hydrogen infrastructure, which continues to look like pie-in-the-sky. The artificial photosynthesis project from Penn State follows a recent announcement by Texas A&M University, in which hydrogen is produced by modifying E. Coli. Auto companies continue to invest millions of dollars into hydrogen-powered vehicles, despite major obstacles to the creation of a so-called hydrogen highway.