Using solar energy to turn raw materials into ingredients for everyday life

September 17, 2014 by Rose Trapnell
Using solar energy to turn raw materials into ingredients for every day life
Dr Sarina Sarina

( —Just about everything we touch in the course of a day - car, phone, computer, fridge, detergent - even medicines, rely on the chemical industry to turn raw materials such as petroleum by-products, minerals and farm products into valuable chemicals that are the ingredients of life's essential objects.

QUT scientist Dr Sarina Sarina, who achieved outstanding progress in driving this energy intensive chemical production process at ambient temperature using light instead of fossil fuels, has won the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt fellowship at the famous Max Planck Institute in Berlin.

"The problem is it takes a massive amount of electrical energy to make the heat required to convert the crude materials," Dr Sarina, from QUT's Science and Engineering Faculty, said.

"They must be heated to 200 or 300 degrees to achieve the chemical conversion and so this process takes about one third of the energy consumed by manufacturing," Dr Sarina said.

"My research has found that we can achieve high efficiency using sunlight for many chemical productions, and at much lower temperatures.

"The key is to use such as gold nanoparticles as a 'photocatalyst', which absorbs light and converts the raw materials to useable products.

"All we will need is a giant lens and gold nanoparticles as the photocatalyst to drive the - and all at room temperature so we won't need furnaces."

Dr Sarina said traditional photocatalysts were semi-conductors made of metal oxide with the drawback that they absorbed only UV, not visible light.

"This means traditional photocatalysts use only a small part of the energy available because UV accounts for just 4 per cent of the solar spectrum and 96 per cent of the solar spectrum is visible light and infra-red," she said.

"Previous QUT research by Professor Huai Yong Zhu found that gold nanoparticles absorb most of the so they are very efficient at using .

"Gold nanoparticles, apart from being very expensive, can drive only a small number of reactions but we have found that when we add palladium to the it can drive many more reactions than gold by itself.

"I will be working at the Max Planck Institute to develop cheaper, more efficient photocatalysts from bimetallic nanoparticles such as copper or silver and palladium or the other "transition metals" such as iridium and rhodium to find which combination would drive a specific chemical reaction.

"Ultimately, I want to find the perfect photocatalysts to use with Australia's abundant sunshine to convert using zero for energy."

Explore further: Nanostructures enhance light trapping for solar fuel generation

Related Stories

Gold nanoparticles enrich every day products

May 5, 2010

( -- Durable paint, water purification, faster computers, tougher shoe soles, and lighter and cheaper televisions are all possibilities now that a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) scientist has discovered ...

Pentagonal nanorods show catalytic promise

August 13, 2014

Pentagonal nanorods have a unique morphology that confers interesting compositional and shape-dependent properties—including excellent stability and high catalytic activity—that make them excellent candidates for industrial ...

Recommended for you

Nano-decoy lures human influenza A virus to its doom

October 25, 2016

To infect its victims, influenza A heads for the lungs, where it latches onto sialic acid on the surface of cells. So researchers created the perfect decoy: A carefully constructed spherical nanoparticle coated in sialic ...

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

October 24, 2016

Yuan Yang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Columbia Engineering, has developed a new method to increase the energy density of lithium (Li-ion) batteries. He has built a trilayer structure that ...

Nanofiber coating prevents infections of prosthetic joints

October 24, 2016

In a proof-of-concept study with mice, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University show that a novel coating they made with antibiotic-releasing nanofibers has the potential to better prevent at least some serious bacterial ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.