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Plant-inspired material represents a strong step forward for renewable energy

Clean, renewable, and increasingly affordable, solar and wind power present attractive alternatives to carbon-based energy sources.

But weather patterns are erratic. Wind power is generally more effective at night when energy needs are lowest, and an overcast day can slow solar energy output to a standstill. Without access to an efficient energy storage system, managing these variations presents a major challenge to industries and communities in making the transition away from fossil fuels.

A new material that mimics the process of plants undergoing photosynthesis may offer a potential solution to this longstanding problem. Professor Ted Sargent and his team of researchers from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering have developed a system that can harnesses renewable energy from solar and wind sources, and more importantly, store it indefinitely.

The team’s material is an emerald-green gel composed of tungsten, iron, and cobalt. When subjected to an electric current, it splits water molecules into their base components of hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is quickly released back into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen can be stored until it’s required. It can then be converted back into energy through the use of a hydrogen fuel cell.

Emulating the photosynthesis process in renewable energy storage is not a new approach, but Sargent’s team has significantly refined its execution. The three metals used in their gel are widely abundant, presenting a substantial cost-savings compared to precious metals relied upon by many alternative catalyst systems. It splits hydrogen and oxygen over three times more efficiently than the previous record-holder, and it also showed no signs of degrading after 500 hours of continuous activity. All of these factors could lead to the gel’s widespread adoption, and make renewable energy a more attractive option for industrial consumers.

While the discovery is certainly groundbreaking, Sargent understands that his team’s material is just one step towards the goal of solving a very complex equation. “It’s a big advance, although there’s still more room to improve,” said Sargent in RD Magazine. “We will need to make catalysts and electrolysis systems even more efficient, cost effective and high intensity in their operation in order to drive down the cost of producing renewable hydrogen fuels to an even more competitive level.”

Sargent’s research was supported in part by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s interdisciplinary Bio-Inspired Solar Energy team, who are in turn supported by Metcalf as part of a three-year commitment.

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