By Chris Arsenault
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Scientists in Switzerland announced a clean-energy breakthrough on Wednesday; a cheaper, solar technology that splits water molecules to create clean-burning hydrogen fuel.
The solar panel design will make it cheaper to produce hydrogen, but a simple version won't be available for average citizens for at least 10 years, scientists said.
Splitting water molecules to create hydrogen allows the sun's energy to be more easily stored to generate electricity or power clean cars.
The discovery has major implications for climate change, as improved solar energy would reduce fossil fuel dependence.
Previous solar hydrogen technologies were too expensive to commercialize, scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, said in their article appearing in the journal "Nature Communications".
"We want to convert solar energy into hydrogen in an economically competitive way," Kevin Sivula, one of the report's authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The technology is "a huge increase (in efficiency) on what's been done before... and it opens new pathways for solar development," he said.
The new solar panel looks similar to the traditional version mounted on rooftops, except sunlight first passes through a thin layer of water contained inside the device.
Tungsten diselenide, a non-toxic chemical, acts as a photocatalyst and is critical for using the sun's energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.
Currently, about 1 percent of the energy from the sunlight passing through a panel can be converted into hydrogen energy; efficiency must increase to about 10 percent for the discovery to have mass, commercial appeal, Sivula said.
He estimated that when scientists are able to obtain "the same efficiency as traditional solar-to-hydrogen conversion, our cheap device production method would reasonably lead to a price for hydrogen that is five-to-10-times less expensive."
Sivula and his colleagues believe it is only a matter of time and research before the new technology's efficiency is improved.
The new discovery is part of a larger international push towards improving solar power.
The global solar index tracked by investors has risen 40 percent this year and investments in solar power are outperforming struggling fossil fuel commodities such as natural gas or coal.
Oil giant Exxon Mobil expects solar capacity to grow by more than 20-fold between 2010 and 2040.
"At the rate we are using fossil fuels, a solar to hydrogen conversion technology will eventually become economically viable no matter what," Sivula said.
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)