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Rust Brings Boost To Solar Energy Potential, Say Scientists

posted 8 Feb 2013, 13:56 by Mpelembe   [ updated 8 Feb 2013, 13:57 ]

Using the power of sunlight, Swiss scientists are developing methods of extracting inexpensive, safely transportable, hydrogen fuel from iron oxide - commonly known as rust. The process essentially converts solar power into hydrogen, vastly increasing the potential of solar energy to serve as a viable renewable energy source across the world.Jim Drury met the scientists behind the research.

Innovations - When exposed to a naked flame, hydrogen can be extremely dangerous.

But hydrogen's potential as a clean, renewable source of energy is also extremely attractive and laboratories around the world, are looking for ways to store and exploit it safely.

Scientists at the EPFL institute in Lausanne, believe they've found one.

These are microscopic hydrogen bubbles being produced by an unexpected source - iron oxide, commonly known as rust.

The researchers believe molecular hydrogen extraction using iron oxide, sunlight, and water presents an inexpensive eco-friendly solution for storing renewable energy.

Ludmilla Steier is one of the EPFL team.


"Right now it's just actually the air taking the solution of iron acetylacetonate and so combined with the heat it's transformed into iron oxide."

The iron oxide is more highly developed than that found on a rusting car. It's nanostructured, enhanced with silicon oxide, and covered with a nanometer-thin layer of aluminium oxide and cobalt oxide.

A layer of dye and titanium dioxide lets electrons transferred by the oxide gain sufficient energy to extract molecular hydrogen.

The team is working on a variety of methods of extraction.


"We can take nanoparticles of iron oxide and disperse them in a liquid, making something like a paint which we can just paint onto our substrates, leaving a nanostructured iron oxide behind. In another more efficient way we can deposit iron oxide by essentially smoking it onto the substrate by making very small particles of iron oxide particles in a gas phase and having them hit the substrate we can make high surface area iron oxide, which is precisely doped with the right amount of silicon that we need to have a high-performance electrode."

Producing the chemical is done by splitting water into its atomistic components - oxygen and hydrogen.

The team says it's a technique that can be used anywhere in the world, solving one of the biggest problems caused by transporting hydrogen - its inherent volatility.

PhD student Maurin Cornuz believes the painting method could yield the best results.


"We moved into the ink process that allows us much better control for the morphology, the nanostructuring of the electrodes and also can be translated to a roll-to-roll process, so a large-scale deposition."

The team believe the system could vastly increase the potential of storing solar energy world-wide.


"Iron oxide is potentially extremely inexpensive, so it could compete even at a lower level of efficiency. That said, our efficiency being only at one to two percent does need to get up a little bit higher before these devices could be commercial. So to do that we're really digging deep into the science both of the nanostructure of the iron oxide, but also the electrochemical processes that are occurring in the material in order to first determine what the loss processes are and then to make them better."

The team is excited about the potential of their research. They say hydrogen power is certain to make an impact in the future.