A breakthrough has been made in the development of clean hydrogen power, scientists believe.

Researchers at the University of Bath and Yale University in the US have produced a new material for generating hydrogen from water - meaning it is less reliant on fossil fuels.

The invention uses a newly designed molecular catalyst to split water in an electrolyser and create clean and storable hydrogen fuel.

The research team are now in discussions with a number of energy companies about utilising this technology on a large scale and hope the breakthrough marks the start of contributing to providing the world with more sustainable fuels.

Water splitting is an electro-chemical process in which two electrodes generate oxygen and hydrogen from water, respectively.

The energy required to drive this process gets locked up in the hydrogen as the fuel with oxygen as a by-product. A fuel cell can then harness the energy again elsewhere by recombining the two.

This new patented catalyst is more efficient at performing the crucial oxidation half reaction than any other existing material, minimising energy losses in the electricity-to-hydrogen conversion process.

It can be directly applied to various electrode surfaces in a straightforward and highly economical manner.

As regulations tighten on the use of fossil fuels and their emissions, there is a growing focus on the need for cost effective and efficient ways of creating energy carriers from renewable sources.

Solar power is thought to be able to provide up to 4% of the UK's electricity by the end of the decade.

However, while the price of photovoltaic technology has dramatically decreased in recent years as demand has risen, solar energy is problematic as it is intermittent, meaning electricity is only created when it is light.

One use of the newly developed catalyst is to enable solar power to be transformed and stored as hydrogen which can then be used on demand, regardless of the time of day.

The research has been led by Dr Ulrich Hintermair, a Whorrod research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath.

"Hydrogen is a fantastically versatile and environmentally friendly fuel, however, hydrogen-powered applications are only as 'green' as the hydrogen on which they run," he said.

"Currently, over 90% is derived from fossil fuels. If we want to bring about a clean hydrogen economy we must first generate clean hydrogen.

"This new molecular catalyst will hopefully play a large role in helping create hydrogen from renewable energy sources such as solar power.

"We are also interested in applying this technology to other forms of renewable energy such as tidal, wind and wave power."

Professor Matthew Davidson, head of the department of chemistry, added: "Splitting water into its constituent parts is deceptively simple chemistry, but doing it in a sustainable way is one of the holy grails of chemistry because it is the key step in the goal of artificial photosynthesis.

"Uli's results are extremely exciting because of their potential for practical application."