Researchers at the University of Southampton have transformed optical fibres into photocatalytic microreactors that convert water into hydrogen fuel using solar energy.

The ground-breaking technology coats the inside of microstructured optical fibre canes (MOFCs) with a photocatalyst which – with light – generates hydrogen that could power a wide range of sustainable applications.

Chemists, physicists and engineers at Southampton have published their proof of concept in ACS Photonics and will now establish wider studies that demonstrate the scalability of the platform.

The MOFCs have been developed as high pressure microfluidic reactors by each housing multiple capillaries that pass a chemical reaction along the length of the cane.

Researchers coat the optical fibre canes at Southampton’s Zepler Institute cleanroom complex

Alongside hydrogen generation from water, the multi-disciplinary research team is investigating photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into synthetic fuel. The unique methodology presents a potentially feasible solution for renewable energy, the elimination of greenhouse gases and sustainable chemical production.

Dr Matthew Potter, Chemistry Research Fellow and lead author, says: “Being able to combine light-activated chemical processes with the excellent light propagation properties of optical fibres has huge potential. In this work our unique photoreactor shows significant improvements in activity compared to existing systems. This as an ideal example of chemical engineering for a 21st century green technology.”

Advances in optical fibre technology have played a major role in telecommunications, data storage and networking potential in recent years. This latest research involves experts from Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), part of the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics, to tap into the fibres’ unprecedented control of light propagation.

The scientists coat the fibres with titanium oxide, decorated with palladium nanoparticles. This approach allows the coated canes to simultaneously serve as both host and catalyst for the continuous indirect water splitting, with methanol as a sacrificial reagent.

The study was published in University of Southampton