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Use of light for solar energy production



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IMAGE: This is Associate Professor Daniel Gomez of RMIT University, who owns a disc with nano-enhanced palladium.
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Credit: RMIT University

The new technology that uses sunlight to control chemical reactions is the way to a more sustainable chemical industry, one of the world's largest energy users.

Researchers at RMIT University have developed nano-enhanced materials that can capture incredible 99% of light and turn it into chemical reactions.

With the reduction of the environmental impact of chemical production, innovation could also be used in technologies such as better infrared cameras and solar desalination.

Published today ACS Applied Energy MaterialsThe study deals with the search for alternative energy sources in the chemical industry, which accounts for about 10% of global energy consumption and 7% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

The US chemical industry uses more energy than any other industry, accounting for 28% of industrial energy consumption in 2017.

While photo catalysis – the use of light to control chemical reactions – is growing in the industry, efficiency and cost remain important barriers to wider use.

Leading researcher associate professor Daniel Gomez said that the new technology maximizes light absorption to effectively transform light energy into chemical energy.

"Chemical production is a power hungry industry because traditional catalytic processes require intense heating and pressure to guide reactions," said Gomez, ARC Future Fellow at RMIT Science School.

"But one of the biggest challenges for a more sustainable future is that many of the materials best suited to sparking chemical reactions are not responsive enough to light."

"The photographic catalyst we've developed can catch 99% of the light across the spectrum and 100% specific color.

"It is a scalable and efficient technology that opens up new opportunities for solar energy – from power generation to direct solar energy conversion to valuable chemicals."

Nano technologies for solar energy

The study focused on palladium, an element that is perfect for chemical reactions, but is usually not very light.

By manipulating the optical properties of palladium nanoparticles, researchers could make the material more sensitive to light.

Although palladium is rare and expensive, the technique requires only a small amount – 4 nanometers of nano-enhanced palladium is enough to absorb 99% of the light and get a chemical reaction. For comparison, the average human hair thickness is 100,000 nanometers.

In addition to chemical production, innovation could be further developed for a number of other possible applications, including better night vision technology, creating more light-sensitive and clearer images.

Another potential use is desalination. Nano-enhanced material can be placed in salted water exposed to sunlight, generating enough energy to boil and evaporate water, separating it from salt.

Gomez, who runs the Polaritonics Laboratory RMIT, said that the new technology could significantly increase productivity in the new photocatalyst industry, and leading companies now produce about 30 kg of product every day using light as a driving force.

"We all rely on chemical processing products – plastic and pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and materials that produce paints on digital screens," he said.

"But like the rest of our economy, it is the industry that is currently using carbon.

"Our primary goal is to use this technology to effectively use sunlight and convert solar energy into chemicals to transform this important industry into something that is renewable and sustainable."

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A study by CSIRO, Melbourne Center Nanofabrice, and Melbourne University colleagues has been published ACS Applied Energy Materials (DOI: 10.1021 / acsaem.8b01704).

The next edition of the magazine will publish paper that demonstrates similar technology using gold nanoparticles ACS Photonics.

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