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UW Makes Breakthrough in Renewable Energy Research

By Barbara Vergetis Lundin, FierceEnergy

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered a new approach to combining two important research areas for renewable energy – solar energy conversion and biomass conversion.

For decades, scientists have been working to harness the energy from sunlight to drive chemical reactions to form fuels such as hydrogen, which provide a way to store solar energy for future use and, to this end, many researchers have been working to develop functional, efficient and economical methods to split water into hydrogen, a clean fuel, and oxygen using photoelectrochemical solar cells (PEC). Although splitting water using an electrochemical cell requires an electrical energy input, a PEC can harness solar energy to drive the water-splitting reaction and requires a significantly reduced electrical energy input or no electrical energy at all.

In a typical hydrogen-producing PEC, water reduction at the cathode (producing hydrogen) is accompanied by water oxidation at the anode (producing oxygen). Although the purpose of the cell is not the production of oxygen, the anode reaction is necessary to complete the circuit. Unfortunately, the rate of the water oxidation reaction is very slow, which limits the rate of the overall reaction and the efficiency of the solar-to-hydrogen conversion. Therefore, researchers are currently working to develop more efficient catalysts to facilitate the anode reaction.

The UW – Madison researchers have a new approach -- a novel PEC setup with a new anode reaction that requires less energy and is faster than water oxidation while producing an industrially important chemical product. The anode reaction they employed the oxidation of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF -- a key intermediate in biomass conversion that can be derived from cellulose, a type of cheap and abundant plant matter) to 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA -- an important molecule for the production of polymers).

Biomass conversion can offer a viable pathway to generate chemicals used in industrial processes without using petroleum products. Conventional biomass conversion processes use high-pressure oxygen for the conversion of HMF to FDCA at high temperatures. The researchers, however, developed an efficient electrochemical method to oxidize HMF to FDCA at room temperature and ambient pressure using water as the oxygen source and employed this oxidation reaction as the anode reaction of the PEC that produces hydrogen at the cathode, demonstrating the utility of solar energy for biomass conversion as well as the feasibility of using an oxidative biomass conversion reaction as an anode reaction in a hydrogen-forming PEC.

FDCA is a bonus byproduct from a PEC that generates hydrogen. The production of FDCA, a valuable chemical, at the anode lowers the production cost for hydrogen. This new approach therefore presents new possibilities for research in both solar conversion and biomass conversion.

When the study first began, about two years ago, there was little certainty surrounding whether the approach was even feasible.

 "However, since we knew that the impact of the study could be high when successful, we decided to invest our time and effort on this new research project at the interface of biomass conversion and solar energy conversion," said researcher Professor Kyoung-Shin Choi.

And high it was. Choi expects, based on the research, that the development of more diverse and efficient electrochemical and solar-driven biomass conversion processes will increase the efficiency and utility of solar-fuel-producing PECs.

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