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October 6, 2015 | Is a Marriage Between Solar and Hydrogen Power Possible?

Solar power is, perhaps, the most abundant resource on the planet. Every day the sun comes up, pouring huge amounts of light onto the surface of the planet, which can be converted into electricity. Because solar power is literally as dependable as the sunrise, it's been one of the most heavily pursued forms of alternative energy in the struggle to fight global warming and turn off the fossil fuel tap. In fact, thanks to an explosion in manufacturing, advances in cheaper installation and financing for both residential and non-residential solar projects, solar power has reached new highs as of the summer of 2015.

Solar power may have a new partner, though, and the two of them could do extraordinary things working together.

The Marriage of Solar and Hydrogen

For years hydrogen-based power was considered a phenomenal, clean energy solution that just wasn't going to work. Hydrogen is a common element which can be harvested from water, it contains a huge amount of energy, and it can be used on both a small and industrial scale. The problem has been that breaking up the hydrogen and oxygen in water has always used far more energy than it produced. This means that while the hydrogen itself is clean, it often burns a lot of coal or natural gas to separate it.

The key was to discover a clean, renewable way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Ideally, this would be a method that used advanced technology to turn sunlight into the chisel that could split these atoms apart. Well, after years of work, such a method was devised, and is currently in use around the world. Germany, in particular, has taken large steps to use solar water splitting as a method to store energy in order to stabilize its power grids.

This combination of technology isn't just an experimental fling, either. According to Science Daily, scientists recently set a new record for how efficient this process could be.

14 Percent Efficiency

The previous record for solar water splitting efficiency was 12.4 percent, and that record was set nearly 17 years ago. After years of study — and a little bit of inspiration — efficiency has jumped to 14 percent, thanks to a new design. The key, according to the international study's lead author Matthias May, was tandem solar cells. While it sounds simple, the team went through over 100 separate samples in order to find the combination that worked together best. The result is something that, without hyperbole, could change the world.

The Potential of a Solar-Hydrogen Partnership

The immediate benefit of storing solar power in the form of hydrogen is that we can overcome the limitations of solar's availability. On bright days where there's far more sun than there is demand for energy, the leftover power can be stored in the form of hydrogen. When the sun goes down and the demand for power goes up, the hydrogen can be recombined with oxygen, releasing the electricity with no by-products except water, which can be split back into its component parts the next day.

That's where we are now, regarding the implementation of solar water splitting; however, the potential this technology represents is significantly greater.

How much greater? Well, if hydrogen can be created using clean, renewable energy, then it may be able to establish a foothold in replacing fossil fuels across the board. Hydrogen gas can be transported to regions that don't have solar power, for example, and used to create electricity. It can also be used to power vehicles, which would replace the need for gasoline. On a large enough production scale, hydrogen gas created with the help of the sun could mean that the only emissions we're generating are water.