From suffocating smog to futuristic fuel: Air purifier turns pollution into power

A device that generates hydrogen gas while purifying air could one day be used to simultaneously combat urban pollution and provide an environmentally friendly fuel source for vehicles.

Developed by scientists from the University of Antwerp and the University of Leuven in Belgium, the device only requires light to work, making it a promising technology for cities looking to improve their air quality.

“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane,” said study lead author professor Sammy Verbruggen, from the Universities of Antwerp and Leuven.

“Air is purified on one side, while on the other side hydrogen gas is produced from a part of the degradation products. This hydrogen gas can be stored and used later as fuel, as is already being done in some hydrogen buses, for example. “

The device is currently only available as a prototype, but the researchers plan to scale it up to be used in industrial-level settings, where it could be used to combat the ever-growing problem of urban air pollution.

Air pollution in California, the US

The device relies on specific nanomaterials within the its membrane, which act as a catalyst to help convert air pollution into hydrogen.

Previously these materials have been used to convert water into hydrogen, however the researchers found that using polluted air was not only also possible, but potentially more effective.

“These catalysts are capable of producing hydrogen gas and breaking down air pollution,” explained Verbruggen. “In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air.”

With a prototype now demonstrated, the researchers plan to develop an industrial-scale version.

“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. At a later stage, we would like to scale up our technology to make the process industrially applicable,” explained Verbruggen.

“We are also working on improving our materials so we can use sunlight more efficiently to trigger the reactions. “

The prototype device. Image courtesy of UAntwerpen and KU Leuven

Air pollution is a problem attracting increasing attention in much of the world. The UK government, for example, is currently being sued for repeatedly failing to act on the problem, having taken little action after repeatedly breaching legal air pollution limits in many of its urban areas.

A growing body of research is also drawing links between air pollution and poor health. A study published in ACS Nano in April suggested that nanoscale particles in polluted air could be contributing to heart disease and strokes, while a study by Yale School of Public Health found that air pollution contributes to higher levels of depression.

Other conditions linked to poor air quality include lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as asthma.

It is hoped that the research, which is published today in the journal ChemSusChem, could help to combat the problem.

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