As modern society increasingly demands sustainable resources and environmentally friendly materials, the extensive use of fossil fuels is becoming a significant burden. In response to the growing call for clean fuels, researchers at Curtin University have developed a low-cost and environmentally friendly method that harvests energy from sunlight to create hydrogen.

The development of innovative research continues to propel Australia forward in the renewable sector, and drives us towards being a world leader in the hydrogen industry.

An environmentally and economically sustainable hydrogen industry could soon be a reality. Research lead by ARC DECRA Fellow, Dr Guohua Jia, from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, has successfully used tiny nanocrystals that provided efficient catalysts to generate solar energy for the production of clean fuels.

“Previously, in order to use catalysts to derive energy from sunlight and transfer it into clean fuels such as hydrogen, we would have had to use cadmium-based semiconductors in combination with expensive noble metals including platinum, iridium and ruthenium,” Dr Jia said.

“However, there are considerable obstacles to the widespread use of materials containing cadmium (Cd), as they are toxic and pose a threat to the environment, while the noble metals are expensive and not sustainable.”

The method behind the madness

Researchers targeted synthesis of semiconductor nanocrystals using non-toxic, earth-abundant elements and use the tiny nanocrystals for clean fuel production through water splitting.

The tiny nanocrystals can absorb the light and generate electrons. The electrons can reduce the hydrogen ions (H+) to hydrogen in a water splitting process.

In order to achieve this, the researchers developed general synthetic strategies for compositing nanocrystals with controlled size, shape and composition.

Dr Jia said the research developed a more efficient and greener alternative to use solar energy to produce clean fuels.

“Our research invented tiny crystals that do not contain any noble and toxic metals, which can be directly used as environmentally friendly catalysts to convert solar energy into hydrogen,” Dr Jia said.

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

“One of the biggest challenges in the process was how to obtain nearly monodisperse nanocrystals so that the ensemble properties of these particles will be similar to those of individual one’s.

“To address this issue, we conducted the synthesis by optimising the preparation conditions.

“Another challenge was many of experiments in the process of developing the new method were unsuccessful and we were feeling frustrated. But we are always persistent and hard working, those are the driving forces of the success in developing the new method.”

Helping move Australia forward

Research projects, such as those led by Dr Jia, are crucial in the transition to clean fuels as Australia moves toward decarbonising gas and electricity.

This type of low-cost, low-emission clean hydrogen is a key fuel in the transition to a low-carbon economy that can also be used as a carbon-free alternative to fuel for transport, and creates more opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

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

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