A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a way of using solar power to generate hydrogen from biomass.

The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Catalytic nanoparticles of semiconducting cadmium sulfide quantum dots are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This is then placed in front of a light which mimics solar light, at room temperature. The nanoparticles absorb energy from the light and use it to rearrange the atoms in the water and biomass to form hydrogen and other organic chemicals, such as formic acid and carbonate.

The hydrogen which is collected is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power generation.

Various forms of biomass, including pieces of wood, paper and leaves produce hydrogen when placed in the solution and exposed to solar light. The biomass doesn’t require any processing beforehand.

Because the process works at room temperature, it promises to be an inexpensive way to produce hydrogen.

The researchers are exploring a range of potential commercial applications which they say can be at any scale, from small scale devices for off-grid applications to industrial-scale plants.