For the first time ever, scientists have managed to develop a single molecule that can absorb energy from the entire visible spectrum of light, meaning it can harness over 50 percent more solar energy than conventional solar cells. That also means it can catalyze that energy into hydrogen.
Hydrogen is viewed by many in the scientific community as the clean-burning fuel that might power our vehicles in a low-emissions future. Typically, it’s produced by running an electric current through water molecules, separating it from the oxygen. The new discovery, however, uses light as an energy source instead of electricity, removing electricity production from the process altogether.
Turning energy from the sun into, say, fuel for a car, first requires a mechanism to collect the energy. That energy then has to be converted into fuel. The conversion requires something called a catalyst — a thing that speeds up a chemical reaction, allowing the conversion from solar energy to usable energy like hydrogen.
The catalyst used in the study is derived from a rare element called rhodium and has shown a unique ability to collect energy from the entire visible spectrum of sunlight, including low-energy infrared, and transform it quickly and efficiently into hydrogen, which doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases as a byproduct of its use.
There are still problems to work out before the finding can be put to real-world applications, but the findings do point towards a strong tenacity in the scientific community to find ways to smooth our transition towards greener energy sources.