New Horizon Europe project FreeHydroCells aims to investigate freestanding energy-to-hydrogen fuel generation by solar energy absorption

FreeHydroCells (project ID: 101084261), a multi-partner, European consortium, led by University College Cork (UCC) at the Tyndall National Institute and the School of Chemistry, has received nearly €3.75 million in Horizon Europe research funding for just over 3 years of exploratory activity. The project aims to contribute to renewable energy technology development to support a faster transition to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the EU economy by 2050.

The inspiration for the novel concept driving the FreeHydroCells project comes from the combined need to absorb as much solar energy as possible in a material system while at the same time making sure the clean solar energy can be used productively by humans with minimal loss, in this case to make hydrogen fuel. This idea has functional connotations to a leaf during photosynthesis, since it also absorbs solar energy and water (hydrogen, oxygen) to produce organic growth for plant life, while releasing some of the oxygen as a benign gas by-product. While these processes are very different, the use of solar energy and water to convert the solar energy into another productive form for the user is alike.

To achieve this, some of FreeHydroCell’s core project objectives include:

  • Developing disruptive methods to overcome the problems and limitations of the present state-of-the-art in photoelectrochemical (PEC) energy harvesting and molecular hydrogen generation.

  • Identifying novel, abundant, sustainable and emerging alternative semiconductor material combinations to use in new manufacturing-compatible and low-cost processes, coupled with new scientific engineering methods to maximise energy absorption and minimise conversion loss. These are project cornerstones to move beyond the current state-of-the-art solar-to-hydrogen (STH) efficiency levels.

  • Driving the energy harvesting and hydrogen generation by employing built-in electric fields, with an ultimate goal of removing the need for an external power source.

As a frontier-pushing science-to-technology endeavour, FreeHydroCells achieving these objectives will certainly be easier said than done. The project is novel and ambitious, designated as high-risk/high-return in category, as requested by the European Commission’s funding call. FreeHydroCells will require a number of technological and scientific breakthroughs in specific areas, which all must then be made to work effectively together to achieve the project’s potential impact.

If fully successful, FreeHydroCells could provide a low-cost, efficient, modular solar-to-chemical energy cell in a novel buried many-junction photoelectrochemical subsystem design that has the potential to significantly impact the global energy supply market and assist in urgently needed climate action. If not fully successful, each breakthrough has the potential to meaningfully advance science and technology with potential environmental, societal and economic benefits. It may also provide a baseline for further incremental exploration.

The FreeHydroCells’ coordinator says that he

cannot stress enough the importance of team effort and multi-disciplinary collaboration to actually achieve the project’s ambitious objectives. Each of the consortium’s seven partners is bringing specific and specialised expertise, knowledge and infrastructure, which is essential to the project. Any level of achievement in the project will not be possible without the strong input and high-intensity collaboration from all my expert colleagues.

The consortium includes four teams from acrossTyndall National Institute and the School of Chemistry at UCC (led by Dr Ian M. Povey, Prof Paul K. Hurley, Prof Colm O’Dwyer, Prof Justin Holmes, Dr Ievgen Nedrygailov, Dr Jun Lin and Dr Ailbe Ó Manacháin (coordinator)), who will collaborate with organisations from across Europe, including the Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique et aux Energie Alternatives (CEA) of France(led by Dr Estelle le Baron and Dr Nathalie Dupassieux); Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule Aachen (RWTH) of Germany(led by Prof Satender Kataria); Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) of Italy(led by Prof Salvatore A. Lombardo); Gesellschaft fur Angewandte Mikro und Optoelektronik mit Beschrankterhaftung GmbH (AMO) of Germany(led by Prof Max C. Lemme, Dr Ulrich Plachetka and Dr Desislava Daskalova); and BARDS Acoustic Science Labs (BARDS), an Irish SME (led by Dr Dara Fitzpatrick and Dr Eileen O’Callaghan).

To facilitate this intensive scientific collaboration, the project is taking a fresh approach at creating an active interrelationship between all the teams and partners towards the one single objective, which could prove to be a critical ingredient. Rebecca Buckley of UCC Academy, the consortium’s research project management and communications partner, is looking forward to this challenge.

There is great intrinsic value for me in working on projects like FreeHydroCells, where there is potential for radical change to help protect our planet and tackle climate change. Developing mechanisms to support such intense collaboration will be a core and evolving part of the support that UCC Academy will provide.

The FreeHydroCells project launched on 1st November 2022 and will run until February 2026.

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