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A consortium of researchers in the Netherlands is working on a solar-to-fuel device that produces hydrogen. They’ve recently experienced a breakthrough: Using common materials – with no need for scarce, expensive precious metals – they report that they have developed the most efficient method to date for converting light into hydrogen. The system comprises silicon wires less than one tenth of a millimeter long. Only the tops of the wires are coated with a catalyst. Light particles (photons) are collected between the wires. “The chemical reaction in which hydrogen is formed takes place on the catalyst at the tips of the microwires,” the research team reports.

The researchers achieved a maximum efficiency of 10.8% by varying the density and length of the wires. When designing the experiment, they decoupled the site where the photons are collected from the site where the conversion reaction takes place. This is essential for preventing the catalysts from reflecting the light. However, Dr. Jurriaan Huskens , one of the researchers involved, states that efficiency must be increased even further, to around 15%, in order to make the technology economically viable.

Similar research has also been underway in Germany for quite a while now. In 2016, Dr. Harun Tüysüz of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research received the Jochen Block Award for his research into developing nanostructured multifunctional materials for catalytic applications. Tüysüz has also pursued research into directly converting solar energy into fuels which can be easily stored.