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This is a hypothetical rendering of what one of the "solar fuels rigs" would look like.

Want to fuel your car with ocean water? Engineers at Columbia are working to make that possible.

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Energy experts expect hydrogen to play an important role as an alternative, sustainable fuel source in the future.

That's because hydrogen is abundant in our environment and is a fundamental element in water.

However, most of the United States' hydrogen is produced through steam methane reforming, which releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, which took place during the 18th and 19th centuries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that increased levels of greenhouse gases have led to a rise in the Earth's average temperature.

Columbia Engineering professor, Daniel Esposito, and his team recently published a proof-of-concept study in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, showing how a device they designed could lead to cheaper, more sustainable hydrogen production.

The team's floating solar panels would convert sunlight into electricity to power an electrolyzer. From there, the simple electrolyzer would split water into oxygen and hydrogen, so the latter can be used as a fuel.

Daniel Esposito/Columbia Engineering

What makes this device unique is that it doesn't use a membrane to keep the gases separated, explained Jack Davis, a PhD candidate and the lead author of the paper.

"A membrane in other devices is typically like a divider which allows a conductive pathway between the electrodes, but also allows you to separate the hydrogen and oxygen gases," Davis said.

The problem with using these membranes, Davis explained, is that they are prone to "to degradation and failure."

Davis explained that their device eliminates the expensive membranes all together and relies on the "buoyancy of the bubbles themselves to self-separate into their own collection chambers."

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Photovoltaic-powered Hydrogen Fuel Technology

This research is still in a very conceptional stage so Davis said there are a number of challenges they have to address in order to make the device more efficient.

In the future, they hope to develop a full-scale "floating solar fuels rigs" that could harness the power of the sun and turn seawater into hydrogen fuel.

"I think that the big takeaway is, there’s a lot of different designs and different ways to generate hydrogen and capture it and store it," Davis said. "I think for these floating solar fuels rigs, I think they provide a novel way to both integrate solar energy into our transportation sector, but also provide it in a different way. I think there could be possibly unique markets to access if we’re generating our hydrogen out at sea versus getting it from natural gas."

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