Quantum tunnelling breakthrough opens new avenues for solar energy

8 Nov 2017

Image: somsak nitimongkolchai/Shutterstock

With the confirmation of a 90-year-old theory on quantum tunnelling, whole new avenues of energy research have opened up.

A team of researchers from the University of Sydney announced the confirmation that electrons can ‘tunnel’ through barriers in watery solutions, thereby neutralising impurities within it.

This confirms a 90-year-old theory proposed by a scientist named Ronald Gurney, and could potentially open up new avenues in biosensing and alternative energies.

This neutralisation of ions in solution contradicts our current understanding of science, where the neutralisation only happens at the electrode surface. Until now, science has understood that particles could tunnel through physical barriers. This has driven much of the scientific work behind things such as nuclear fusion and, unsurprisingly, the scanning tunnelling microscope.

However, now that we are understanding that the phenomenon can be seen in water.

Hydrogen economy

In a paper published to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, the research team said it applied quantum techniques to understanding the electrolysis of water, whereby an electric current is sent through water to produce the elements hydrogen and oxygen.

Major industries and energy companies could use quantum tunnelling to help harvest greater amounts of hydrogen.

As solar energy is dependent on a sun that is always shining, one method of overcoming this is to use the energy generated to create hydrogen gas, which could be stored and burned when needed.

“This lays the basis for new and faster methods to detect biomedical impurities in water, with potentially important implications for biosensing techniques,” said Prof David McKenzie of the research team.

“A better understanding of electrolysis is becoming more important for applications in alternative energies in what is sometimes called the ‘hydrogen economy’.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic