A new breakthrough in solar energy has the potential to make it cheaper and more viable as a source of renewable energy, according to researchers at Lund University and Uppsala University in Sweden.

Historically, developing solar energy cells was a fairly expensive process because they needed to use an expensive metal called ruthenium in order to adequately capture sunlight and convert it into usable energy. Unfortunately, attempting to replace this expensive material with a more usable one proved to be a challenge.

"Many researchers have tried to replace ruthenium with iron, but without success. All previous attempts have resulted in molecules that convert light energy into heat instead of electrons, which is required for solar cells to generate electricity," said Villy Sundström, Professor of Chemical Physics at Lund University.

Luckily, researchers have found a way around using ruthenium. The technique behind the breakthrough involves using nanostructured titanium dioxide and a dye that can be applied to solar energy cells to capture and convert energy without losing it through heat.

These new materials will finally allow scientists to use iron and lower the cost of making the power cells. This will undoubtedly lower the cost of production, which is a huge step towards making solar energy more marketable.

“The advantage of using iron is that it is a common element in nature. It can provide inexpensive and environmentally friendly applications of solar energy in the future,” said Kenneth Wärnmark, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Lund University.

In addition to furthering research on solar energy, the breakthrough also holds promise for solar fuels – an area of development wherein the sun is used to turn water and carbon dioxide into energy-rich molecules. The full study has been published in Nature Chemistry

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