The CU-Boulder team has devised a solar-thermal system in which sunlight could be concentrated by a vast array of mirrors onto a single point atop a central tower up to several hundred feet tall. The tower would gather heat generated by the mirror system to roughly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,350 Celsius), then deliver it into a reactor containing chemical compounds known as metal oxides, said CU-Boulder Professor Alan Weimer, research group leader.
As a metal oxide compound heats up, it releases oxygen atoms, changing its material composition and causing the newly formed compound to seek out new oxygen atoms, said Weimer. The team showed that the addition of steam to the system -- which could be produced by boiling water in the reactor with the concentrated sunlight beamed to the tower -- would cause oxygen from the water molecules to adhere to the surface of the metal oxide, freeing up hydrogen molecules for collection as hydrogen gas.
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