First-of-Its-Kind Solar-Driven Ethylene and Hydrogen Production Revealed

First-of-Its-Kind Solar-Driven Ethylene and Hydrogen Production Revealed

June 13, 2024 1 By Tami Hood

A groundbreaking research collaboration between Hydrofuel Canada Inc. and the Solar Fuels Group at the University of Toronto has yielded a pioneering method for producing ethylene and hydrogen from ethane using sunlight. This innovative approach, detailed in a recent paper published in Nature Energy, offers a sustainable alternative to the conventional energy-intensive and carbon-emitting process of steam cracking.

Harnessing Sunlight for Cleaner Production

The research, spearheaded by Dr. Rui Song under the guidance of Professor Geoffrey Ozin, introduces a novel solar-driven catalytic process that leverages light to convert ethane, a component of natural gas, into ethylene and hydrogen without emitting any CO2. This method not only mitigates the environmental impact of ethylene production but also presents a renewable pathway for hydrogen generation.

Dr. Rui Song and Professor Geoffrey Ozin - 1st of its kind ethylene and hydrogen production science

Dr. Rui Song and Professor Geoffrey Ozin

Why is Clean Ethylene Production so Important?

Ethylene is the world’s most widely used organic compound, playing a crucial role in the plastics, fiber, and packaging industries. With global consumption expected to exceed 200 million tonnes by 2025, the current method of producing ethylene via thermal steam cracking of ethane is both energy-intensive and environmentally detrimental. In contrast, the new solar-driven process developed by the research team promises to produce ethylene in a more sustainable and efficient manner.

Key Findings and Technological Advancements

1. CO2-Free Ethylene Production

The core achievement of this research lies in its ability to utilize sunlight to convert ethane into ethylene along with a co-product, hydrogen, all while operating under ambient conditions and emitting no carbon dioxide. This marks a significant departure from traditional methods that rely on fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

2. 24/7 Operation with LEDs

To address the challenge of solar intermittency, the team incorporated LEDs powered by solar energy stored in batteries. This innovation enables continuous, round-the-clock operation, making renewable energy viable for consistent industrial processes.

3. High-Efficiency Hydrogen Production

Unlike green hydrogen production, which typically uses solar power to drive electrolyzers at 70% to 80% efficiency for about six hours per day, this new method achieves higher efficiency by converting carbon-based feedstocks into hydrogen and ethylene photo-chemically. This process is powered by LEDs and short-term battery-stored electricity, offering a more reliable and cost-effective solution for hydrogen generation.

Impact on Industry and Environment

The implications of this research are profound for both industry and the environment:

  • Reduced Carbon Footprint: By eliminating CO2 emissions from ethylene production, this method significantly reduces the carbon footprint of one of the petrochemical industry’s key building blocks.
  • Sustainable Hydrogen Production: The high-efficiency production of hydrogen provides a renewable and accessible energy source, beneficial for various sectors, including energy and transportation.
  • 24/7 Renewable Energy Utilization: The ability to use stored solar energy for uninterrupted operation addresses a critical challenge in the renewable energy sector, enhancing its practicality and scalability.

The Research Team and Their Vision

This pioneering work is the result of a $1M CAD, two-year research and exclusive license agreement between Hydrofuel Canada Inc. and the University of Toronto, established in June 2023. The collaboration aims to explore the potential of light energy to replace fossil fuels in the production of various hydrocarbons.

Dr. Rui Song, the lead researcher, emphasized the significance of this breakthrough, stating, “Our techno-economic evaluation highlights the potential for this sustainable, solar-driven approach to be implemented on an industrial scale.”

Future Prospects and Applications

The findings of this research open up a plethora of opportunities for the photo-reforming of hydrogen-rich small molecule carriers. This includes the safe transportation, storage, and production of green hydrogen, which is essential for a sustainable energy future. Additionally, the co-production of value-added commodity chemicals and alternative fuels further enhances the economic viability and environmental benefits of this technology.


hydrogen news ebookThe collaborative efforts of Hydrofuel Canada Inc. and the Solar Fuels Group at the University of Toronto have resulted in a first-of-its-kind discovery that could revolutionize the way ethylene and hydrogen are produced. By harnessing the power of sunlight and LEDs, this innovative method offers a cleaner, more efficient, and sustainable alternative to traditional processes.

For more information on this groundbreaking research and its potential applications, visit Hydrofuel Canada Inc. and the University of Toronto Solar Fuels Group.

Stay tuned for future updates and developments as we continue to explore the vast potential of solar-driven ethylene and hydrogen production.

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