It has long been a dream of scientists to use solar energy to produce chemicals which could be stored and later used to create electricity or fuels.
A recent scientific breakthrough is providing hope that this may soon be possible.
The development would offer many benefits, including the ability to store chemicals until needed - current solar power technology has difficulties in this area.
In the laboratory, a new technology mimics photosynthesis, the process used by plants, by combining sunlight and water in such a way that promises storable fuels.
The "solar to chemical energy conversion" process is outlined in an article just published in Nature Photonics, authored by RMIT Univ. researcher Associate Prof. Yasuhiro Tachibana, from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.
Inspired by photosynthesis, in which oxygen and carbohydrates are produced from water and carbon dioxide, the newly developed technology emulates this process using man-made materials.
According to Tachibana, it remains a challenge to construct a device capable of producing molecular fuels like hydrogen at a scale and cost able to compete with fossil fuels.
The key to improving efficiency will be in the development of new nanomaterials, along with efficient control of charge transfer reaction processes, and improvement to the structure of devices.
Recent developments in the field of nanotechnology have been leading to promising improvements in cost and effectiveness of the conversion process, Tachibana says.
"Our future scientific goal is to establish a solar water splitting system operated only by abundant sunlight and sea water," Tachibana remarks. "Fortunately these resources are freely available on this blue planet."
Prof. Xinghuo Yu, Director of RMIT's Platform Technologies Research Institute, says the latest research was significant, but challenges remained in how to translate laboratory-scale academic research into a practical, economically viable technology.
In addition to using solar energy, other commercially available renewable energy sources like wind and tidal power could also conceivably be applied, Professor Yu says.