A collaborative research project led by Curtin University has found a smarter way to generate solar energy to produce low cost, low emission fuels such as hydrogen.

The researchers used tiny nanocrystals as highly efficient catalysts to harvest solar energy for the production of clean fuels. 

The research involved multidisciplinary collaborations between Curtin University, University College London, The Australian National University, Edith Cowan University and The University of Western Australia.

Lead researcher ARC DECRA Fellow Dr Guohua Jia, from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences and the Curtin Institute for Functional Molecules and Interfaces, says that the new method combined environmental and economic benefits to make it attractive to industry involved in the production of clean fuels, which can be used to power cars and a range of industrial processes, and assist with the transition to a low carbon economy.

Previously, cadmium-based semiconductors were used in combination with expensive noble metals including platinum, iridium and ruthenium to derive energy from sunlight and transfer it into clean fuels such as hydrogen. But the high toxicity of cadmium and the high cost of noble metals stood as obstacles to more widespread use.

The latest research, however, has developed a more efficient and greener alternative for harvesting solar energy to produce clean fuels. The nanocrystals developed during this study do not contain any noble or toxic metals. 

Jia says that the new nanomaterials may be of great interest to the energy industry, as they are made from cheap and near-abundant elements and offer industries a cleaner and cheaper fuel source.