Engineers develop floating solar fuels rig for seawater electrolysis

Daniel Esposito, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia Engineering, has been conducting a study on water electrolysis (the splitting of water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2) fuel to convert electricity from solar photovoltaics (PVs) into storable hydrogen fuel). Much of today’s hydrogen is made from natural gas through a process called steam methane; reforming that simultaneously releases CO2, but water electrolysis using electricity from solar PV provides a better method of producing hydrogen without any carbon emissions.


Daniel’s team has now come up with a novel photovoltaic-powered electrolysis device which can function as a stand-alone platform which floats on open water. His floating PV-electrolyzer can be referred to as a “solar fuels rig” which resembles deep-sea oil rigs, but one which produces hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water instead of extracting petroleum from beneath the seafloor. The study is called ‘Floating Membraneless PV-Electrolyzer Based on Buoyancy-Driven Product Separation,’ and was published today by International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

The researchers’ main innovation is the method by which they separate the H2 and O2 gasses produced by water electrolysis. State-of-the-art electrolyzers use expensive membranes to uphold the separation of these two gases. The team is perfecting their design for more efficient operation in real seawater, which creates more difficulties in comparison to the more ideal aqueous electrolytes used in their laboratory studies. They also intend to create modular designs which they can use to build bigger, scaled-up systems.

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