Scientists unlock power of the sun, convert water into green energy

SCIENTISTS have devised a cheap and simple method of turning water into rocket fuel using solar power in a development that could generate a new source of green energy for the home and workplace.

The researchers used electricity from solar panels to split water into oxygen and hydrogen – the constituents of rocket fuel – with a technology that scientists believe could solve many of the problems that have hampered the development of solar energy.

With the help of a simple and yet highly efficient “chemistry set” made out of commonly available materials, the scientists have found a way of storing solar energy as a chemical fuel that can be used to power pollution-free electricity generators known as hydrogen fuel cells.

Until now the concept has stagnated because it has been too costly and difficult to use solar-generated electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen in a domestic setting, but the new method relies on the discovery of a catalyst that speeds up the conversion of water into high-energy fuel.

Daniel Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, said that the discovery could remove one of the major obstacles that had prevented solar power from being taken up widely as a viable alternative to fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

“The discovery has enormous implications for the large-scale deployment of solar since it puts us on the doorstep of a cheap and easily manufactured storage mechanism. The ease of implementation means that this discovery will have legs,” Nocera said.

Being able to use solar panels to build up a store of chemical energy that is easily transported would revolutionise the way solar energy can be used. It not only means that it could power a building at night, it also means it could be carried around to power electric vehicles running on hydrogen fuel cells.

The secret of the breakthrough, published in the journal Science, lies in the type of electrodes used to generate oxygen and hydrogen when they are inserted into water. The scientists made them from a cobalt-phosphate mixture, which acted as a catalyst that speeds up the splitting of water molecules into their components – oxygen and hydrogen.

“The simplicity of this process is amazing. Using common and affordable elements, and a glass of water, these chemists may have given us a future way to efficiently obtain oxygen by splitting water,” said Luis Echegoyen, director of the chemical division of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which funded the work. read more

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