San Diego Business Journal

UC San Diego electrical engineers are building a forest of tiny nanowire trees in order to cleanly capture solar energy without using fossil fuels and harvest it for hydrogen fuel generation.

Reporting in the journal Nanoscale, the team said nanowires, which are made from abundant natural materials such as silicon and zinc oxide, also offer a cheap way to deliver hydrogen fuel on a mass scale.

“This is a clean way to generate clean fuel,” said Deli Wang, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

The trees’ vertical structure and branches are keys to capturing the maximum amount of solar energy, according to Wang. That's because the vertical structure of trees grabs and adsorbs light while flat surfaces simply reflect it, Wang said, adding that it is also similar to retinal photoreceptor cells in the human eye.

In images of Earth from space, light reflects off of flat surfaces such as the ocean or deserts, while forests appear darker.

Wang's team has mimicked this structure in their “3D branched nanowire array” which uses a process called photoelectrochemical water-splitting to produce hydrogen gas. Water splitting refers to the process of separating water into oxygen and hydrogen in order to extract hydrogen gas to be used as fuel.