Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München researchers have developed new high-performance nanostructures, a material that holds a new world record for green hydrogen production with sunlight.

When Emiliano Cortés goes hunting for sunlight, he doesn’t use gigantic mirrors or solar farms. Quite the contrary, the professor of experimental physics and energy conversion at LMU dives into the nanocosmos.

“Where the high-energy particles of sunlight meet atomic structures is where our research begins,” Cortés said.

“We are working on material solutions to use solar energy more efficiently.” His findings have great potential as they enable novel solar cells and photocatalysts.

But there is one major challenge, Cortés suggested, “Sunlight arrives on Earth ‘diluted,’ so the energy per area is comparatively low.”

Solar panels compensate for this by covering large areas. Cortés, however, is approaching the problem from the other direction, so to speak: With his team at LMU’s Nano-Institute, which is funded by the e-conversion cluster of excellence, Solar Technologies go Hybrid (an initiative of the Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst) and the European Research Council, he is developing plasmonic nanostructures that can be used to concentrate solar energy.

In a publication in the journal Nature Catalysis, Cortés, together with Dr. Matías Herran and cooperation partners from the Free University of Berlin and the University of Hamburg, present a two-dimensional supercrystal that generates hydrogen from formic acid with the help of sunlight.

“The material is so outstanding, in fact, that it holds the world record for producing hydrogen using sunlight,” Cortés pointed out.

Nano hotspots unleash catalytic power

 For their supercrystal, Cortés and Herrán use two metals in nanoscale format.

“We first create particles in the range of 10-200 nanometers from a plasmonic metal – which in our case is gold,” Herrán explained.

“At this scale, visible light interacts very strongly with the electrons of gold, causing them to oscillate resonantly.” This allows the nanoparticles to capture more sunlight and convert it into very high-energy electrons.

Highly localized and strong electric fields occur, the hotspots,” said Herrán. These form between the gold particles, which gave Cortés and Herrán the idea of placing platinum nanoparticles right in the interspaces.

An impetus for greener hydrogen production

Today, hydrogen is primarily produced from fossil fuels, predominantly from natural gas. “By combining plasmonic and catalytic metals, we are advancing the development of potent photocatalysts for industrial applications, such as the conversion of CO2 into usable substances,” Cortés and Herrán explained. The two researchers have already patented their material development.


At posting the study paper is not behind a paywall. Its very encouraging research and the results look quite good indeed.

The bug in this is the materials, two of the most expensive raw materials on the market, are involved as primary build material For now water splitting is held up primarily be the cost of electricity. This tech would solve that. But the crystals would have to last perhaps essentially an eternity to someday find a payback.

But its does work and there is every reason to find other build materials far less expensive and see if the economics can be made to work.


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