An American university and British company are conducting two separate research projects that use sunlight to create hydrogen for use as fuel. Finding a way to generate hydrogen using solar energy is important because although hydrogen fuel produces only water when it is burned, current generation methods use energy sources that typically produce undesirable emissions.

Roger Ely and Frank Chaplen, professors at Oregon State University, are working with photosynthetic microorganisms called cyanobacteria, which naturally use energy from the sun’s rays and under the right conditions produce pure hydrogen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, these microorganisms are not directly related to any algal group. Most cyanobacteria are found in freshwater, but also can occur in damp soil, marine settings, and on moistened rock.


Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic microorganisms that can produce pure hydrogen. Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Dr. Ralf Wagner

However, a problem that Ely and Chaplen have encountered is that cyanobacteria stop producing hydrogen when oxygen is present, so the pair hopes to develop oxygen-tolerant strains of the bacteria. The strains could be grown by the millions in systems capable of storing the generated hydrogen, and the hydrogen could then be converted into electricity using these fuel cells.

The proposed systems that will store the hydrogen are called “solar biohydrogen energy systems.” Ely and Chaplen say that they would be economical and safe, operate at relatively low temperatures, and be made in many sizes from inexpensive materials like carbon and silica.

Oregon State University is a Sun Grant University, meaning that the U.S. Congress established a program at the school for researching energy alternatives as stipulated in the Sun Grant Research Initiative Act of 2003. Oregon State’s Web site,, says it is a hub for evolving research, education, and outreach programs focused on bioproducts and bioenergy.

Another solar hydrogen project is being conducted by Hydrogen Solar Ltd., a company located in the United Kingdom. This research involves the development and demonstration of a scalable system that will produce hydrogen directly from sunlight and water using the Hydrogen Solar Tandem Cell™ array. According to an article on (no longer available), the Tandem Cell is a self-contained single unit that directly splits water molecules into high-purity hydrogen and oxygen using energy from the sun.

tandem cell

Hydrogen Solar Ltd.’s Tandem Cell™ array produces hydrogen directly from sunlight and water. Photo Credit: Hydrogen Solar Ltd.

The project has two parts. The first phase will involve designing, building, and installing a 100-m2 array of Tandem Cells to generate high-purity hydrogen. The second phase will demonstrate the array over a six-month period where it will produce hydrogen for fuel cell applications to provide electricity for recharging electric vehicles and to supply heat and power to buildings.

The Tandem Cell is a concept invented by the Swiss Federal University of Technology and the University of Geneva. Hydrogen Solar, who owns the worldwide exclusive rights to it, received funding for the research from the BOC Foundation, which supports projects seeking practical solutions to environmental problems. The BOC Foundation was created in 1990 by the BOC Group, a company that operates more than one hundred hydrogen plants around the world and serves two million customers in more than fifty countries.

For additional information, visit National Council for Solar Growth at

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