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Breakthroughs represent ‘major leap’ towards making energy out of thin air

 (Photo: Brenda Ahearn/University )
(Photo: Brenda Ahearn/University )

New devices could each represent a major breakthrough in making clean energy out of thin air, according to their creators.

They mimic natural processes to gather hydrogen, which is currently made using methane and uses vast amounts of fossil energy.

One is the invention of a new kind of solar panel, 10 times more efficient than previous devices of its kind, that can mimic natural photosynthesis. It turns water into hydrogen and oxygen and is able to dramatically reduce the cost of doing so.

“In the end, we believe that artificial photosynthesis devices will be much more efficient than natural photosynthesis, which will provide a path toward carbon neutrality,” said Zetian Mi, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study.

Scientists were able to arrive at the breakthrough by concentrating down the semiconductor used in the device by more than 100 times, allowing it to harness more light.

They then combined that with another discovery of a semiconductor catalyst that is able to improve itself with use, without breaking down in the sunlight like such devices usually do.

Together they mean the semiconductor is able to handle high intensities of light, but also thrive in high temperatures. That extra energy can be used to harvest more hydrogen, which should reduce the cost of producing it.

It is described in a paper, ‘Solar-to-hydrogen efficiency of more than 9% in photocatalytic water splitting’, published in Nature today.

The other device is a simple system that is able to take water from the air and produce hydrogen gas. It too was inspired by natural processes: it works like an artificial leaf, its creators say, storing the energy gathered from sunlight.

Scientists report that finding in another article, ‘Transparent Porous Conductive Substrates for Gas-Phase Photoelectrochemical Hydrogen Production’, published in Advanced Materials.

Both devices have been tested in outdoor experiments that show meaningful improvements on existing technology, their creators say.