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A common mineral structure, not some expensive metal, has been used to capture energy from the sun and store it as hydrogen, bolstering a new research path toward affordable and clean fuel, scientists reported Thursday. The new rock stars of the hydrogen field are perovskites. Made from various common chemical constituents, perovskites were combined with inexpensive catalysts to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The system converted 12.3 percent of the sun's energy into hydrogen –- the highest efficiency so far for abundant materials, the scientists at a Swiss research lab reported in the peer-reviewed journal Science.
"Both the perovskite used in the cells and the nickel and iron catalysts making up the electrodes require resources that are abundant on Earth and that are also cheap," researcher Jingshan Luo said in a statement. "However, our electrodes work just as well as the expensive platinum-based models customarily used." The team noted that conversion to hydrogen solves a bottleneck for solar power: how to store the energy.
Even the 12.3 percent is "impressive given that this is in the early stage of research," said Dana Christensen, deputy director for science and technology at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "I would not categorize this as a 'breakthrough' but neither would I categorize it as 'another small step' — it is much more than that," Christensen told NBC News. The potential, he added, is that the abundance of perovskites "opens the door to cheaper solar cells and, therefore, more cost-effective manufacturing and deployment."
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