RMIT experts say using solar power to drive chemical manufacturing would lead to enormous energy savings.

New technology that harnesses sunlight to drive chemical reactions is paving the way for a more sustainable chemical manufacturing industry, one of the planet’s biggest energy users.

RMIT University researchers have developed a nano-enhanced material that can capture an incredible 99 per cent of light and convert it to power chemical reactions.

As well as reducing the environmental impact of chemical manufacturing, the innovation could one day be used to deliver technologies like better infrared cameras and solar-powered water desalination.

The project seeks to address addresses the challenge of finding alternative energy sources for chemical manufacturing, which accounts for about 10 per cent of global energy consumption and 7 per cent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

While photo catalysis – the use of light to drive chemical reactions – is growing in the industry, efficiency and cost remain significant obstacles to wider take-up.

Lead investigator Associate Professor Daniel Gomez said the new technology maximises light absorption to efficiently convert light energy into chemical energy.

“Chemical manufacturing is a power-hungry industry because traditional catalytic processes require intensive heating and pressure to drive reactions,” Professor Gomez said.

“But one of the big challenges in moving to a more sustainable future is that many of the materials that are best for sparking chemical reactions are not responsive enough to light.”

“The photo catalyst we’ve developed can catch 99 per cent of light across the spectrum, and 100 per cent of specific colours.

“It’s scaleable and efficient technology that opens new opportunities for the use of solar power – moving from electricity generation to directly converting solar energy into valuable chemicals.”

The research focused on palladium, an element that produces chemical reactions but is usually not very light responsive.

By manipulating 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 technique requires just a miniscule amount - 4 nanometres of nano-enhanced palladium is enough to absorb 99 per cent of light and achieve a chemical reaction. An average human hair, for comparison, is 100,000 nanometres thick.

Beyond chemical manufacturing, the innovation could be further developed for a range of other potential applications including better night vision technology by producing more light-sensitive and clearer images.

Another potential use is for desalination. The nano-enhanced material could be put in salty water then exposed to sunlight, producing enough energy to boil and evaporate the water, separating it from the salt.

Their latest paper is accessible here.