International light on hydrogen-from-water network

A COST Action has received recognition for its collaboration between French and German participants. The network has developed theory and new molecule-level structures to access a source of highly sustainable energy – hydrogen from water – using artificial photosynthesis.

The chair and founder of the PERSPECT-H2O network, Professor Benjamin Dietzek, and its vice-chair, Dr Vincent Artero, were awarded the annual Forcheurs Jean-Marie Lehn prize in June 2018 for their achievement. This prize rewards promising collaboration between German and French researchers in health, pharmacology and chemistry.

Dietzek heads the functional interfaces department at the Leibniz Institute for Photonic Sciences in Jena, Germany, while Artero leads a group on solar fuels, hydrogen and catalysis research at the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy Agency (CEA) and the Université Grenoble Alpes, France.

Together, they coordinated researchers from 50 groups in 22 countries to develop a new type of water-splitting molecular photoelectrode. These photoelectrodes use light to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Only a few molecules in size, the innovative structure operates directly in water. The hydrogen can then be harvested for use as a clean fuel, for storage or for conversion into energy-rich molecules

The four-year network ended in 2016, and COST was central to its success, according to Dietzek and Artero.

“We faced many scientific challenges, ” says Dietzek. “The collaboration was substantial. It would not have happened without COST research exchanges, the short-term scientific missions and the Action’s regular meetings.”

Artero agrees:  “The prize was an outcome of the Action. We probably wouldn’t have collaborated for so long or at all without COST.”

Research synergy

In particular, the network’s chair and vice-chair formed a complementary partnership. Dietzek specialises in studying the mechanics of light-driven catalytic processes, while Artero is an expert in assembling molecules and measuring catalytic activity. They exchanged postgraduate students to promote synergies between their research, with one PhD student now dividing his time between Jena and Grenoble.

It was this partnership that won Dietzek and Artero the prestigious Forcheurs Jean-Marie Lehn prize. It is awarded by BASF-France, Sanofi-Deutschland, the German-French University and the Department of Science and Technology of the French Embassy in Germany under the supervision of Professor Jean-Marie Lehn, the 1987 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry.

“Winning this prize highlights the impact of bringing people together across borders to make Europe work. It is a great honour,” says Dietzek.

“There is a nice coincidence that Professor Lehn is a pioneer in artificial photosynthesis and the founder of supramolecular chemistry,” adds Artero. “The recognition will certainly help to promote the field of artificial photosynthesis and chemistry in general in Europe.”

Collaboration catalyst

Indeed, while artificial photosynthesis is not new, its practical application to generating hydrogen is recent, says Artero.

The structures developed in PERSPECT-H2O, which are known as supramolecular catalysts, have a light-activated core to generate electrical energy that is then transmitted by an electron relay to split water molecules. Individual photocatalytic molecules can be added directly to water or can be fixed on to a submergable frame as part of a hydrogen-producing solar cell.

The creation of the innovative photocatalytic molecules was the result of wide-ranging collaboration.

“This was an open network.  People from all relevant projects and groups were welcome,” Artero adds. “COST helped make the connections between key leaders in this field, especially from the younger generation. Things really happen when people in the lab travel and share expertise.”

Project members now plan to develop the research started in PERSPECT-H2O. “A robust, long-term collaboration has developed between both heads of labs and postdoctoral researchers,” says Dietzek.

Work continues on artificial photosynthesis as a way to transition to a low-carbon economy. Members of the network have contributed to a white paper on the fuel transition, while one member has proposed a follow-up COST Action to look at engineering questions about how to scale-up the technology.

The community now seeks to establish artificial photosynthesis as a Future and Emerging Technologies flagship mission for the European Commission’s proposed research and innovation funding programme to follow Horizon 2020, says Dietzek. 

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Last updated: 07 August 2018 top of page