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The use of light for the chemical industry on solar energy



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FORM: This is RMIT University Associate Professor Daniel Gomez, holding a disc covered with nano-enhanced palladium.
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Credit: RMIT University

New technology that uses sunlight to stimulate chemical reactions paves the way for a more sustainable chemical industry, one of the largest energy consumers in the world.

Researchers at RMIT have developed a nanoamplification material that can capture an incredible 99% of the light and transform it into powerful chemical reactions.

Along with reducing the environmental impact of chemical production, one day this innovation can be used to provide technologies such as improved infrared cameras and solar-powered desalination.

Posted today in ACS Applied Energy MaterialsThe study is devoted to the search for alternative energy sources for chemical production, which accounts for about 10% of global energy consumption and 7% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

In the US, chemical production consumes more energy than any other industry, accounting for 28% of industrial energy consumption in 2017.

While photocatalysis is growing in the industry — using light to stimulate chemical reactions, efficiency and cost remain significant impediments to wider distribution.

Lead researcher, associate professor Daniel Gomez said that the new technology maximizes light absorption to efficiently convert light energy into chemical energy.

“Chemical manufacturing is an energy-intensive industry because traditional catalytic processes require intense heat and pressure to stimulate reactions,” said Gomez, an ARC research fellow at the RMIT Science School.

"But one of the big problems in moving to a more sustainable future is that many of the materials that are best suited to incite chemical reactions are not sensitive to light."

“The photocatalyst we developed can capture 99% of the light across the spectrum and 100% of certain colors.

"This is a scalable and efficient technology that opens up new opportunities for the use of solar energy – the transition from power generation to the direct conversion of solar energy into valuable chemicals."

Nanotechnology for solar energy

Research has focused on palladium, an element that causes excellent chemical reactions, but is usually not very sensitive to light.

By controlling the optical properties of palladium nanoparticles, the researchers were able to make the material more sensitive to light.

While palladium is rare and expensive, the method requires a minimum amount — 4 nanometers of palladium with a nanoamplifier is enough to absorb 99% of the light and achieve a chemical reaction. The average human hair, by comparison, is 100,000 nanometers thick.

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

Another potential use for desalination. Nano-improved material can be placed in salt water, and then exposed to sunlight, producing enough energy to boil and evaporate water, separating it from salt.

Gomez, who leads Polaritonics Lab at RMIT, said the new technology could significantly increase output in the emerging photocatalysis sector, since leading firms now produce about 30 kg of product each day, using light as a driving force.

“We all rely on products from the chemical industry — from plastics and drugs to fertilizers and materials that create colors on digital screens,” he said.

“But just like the rest of our economy, this industry is currently fueled by carbon.

"Our ultimate goal is to use this technology to efficiently use sunlight and convert solar energy into chemicals in order to transform this vital industry into a sector capable of renewal and sustainable development."

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The study, together with the staff of CSIRO, the Melbourne Nanotechnology Center and the University of Melbourne, was published in ACS Applied Energy Materials (DOI: 10.1021 / acsaem.8b01704).

An article demonstrating this technology using gold nanoparticles will be published in the next issue of the magazine. ACS Photonics,

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