Scientists have found a way to make solar panels and phone screens from readily available chromium.

This is according to a report by The Independent published recently.

The article highlights how a major breakthrough sees material “almost as rare as gold” replaced by everyday components, significantly reducing “the price of manufacturing the technology that relies on it”.

Replacing osmium and ruthenium

The development relies on the fact that chromium compounds can replace the metals osmium and ruthenium, which are commonly found in solar panels and the screens of phones.

The Independent notes that chromium is 20,000 times more present in the Earth’s crust than osmium. It is also significantly cheaper to produce. 

Among the many uses found for the compound are a type of artificial photosynthesis inspired by plants.

The scientists conducted experiments to see if chromium could convert energy by engineering a molecular framework incorporating carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen that saw the chromium atoms integrated into a stiff framework to ensure optimum performance.

There are some obstacles currently related to using the new framework: mainly that it is more complex and therefore more difficult to implement than the ones used by the noble metals. However, the scientists did tell The Independent that these obstacles could be surpassed with additional research.

There has been additional work done to swap osmium and ruthenium with iron and copper but The Independent reports that chromium has thus far resulted in improved performance. However, either one of these metals may one day become the leading contender to replace the expensive and rare noble metals. 

Past research and developments

Some form of chromium has been used in past research and developments resulting in hydrogen production and battery energy storage.

In April of 2023, researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide discovered that chromium oxide could act as a catalyst to produce hydrogen from water in a process known as photocatalysis. The scientists observed that chromium oxide had no effect on the water-splitting reaction, making it an excellent candidate for use in photocatalysis. This type of reaction is when hydrogen and oxygen react to form water and can be problematic for photocatalysis.

In that same month, China's first megawatt-level iron-chromium flow battery energy storage plant became operational. Thanks to the chemical characteristics of the iron and chromium ions in the electrolyte, the battery has the impressive capacity of storing 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity for six hours. Meanwhile, the iron-chromium flow batteries can be recharged using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.