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Caltech: Artificial Leaf Technology Creates Hydrogen

Generating and storing renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, is a key barrier to a clean-energy economy. Over the past five years, researchers at Caltech‘s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis have made major advances toward this goal, and they now report the development of the first complete, efficient, safe, integrated solar-driven system for splitting water to create hydrogen fuels.

The technology still has a long way to go before commercialization and cost-effectiveness: the demonstration system is only one square centimeter in area (see video) and it currently converts 10 percent of the energy in sunlight into stored energy in the chemical fuel. But it can operate for more than 40 hours continuously.

“This new system shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more ,” Lewis says.

The new solar fuel generation system, or artificial leaf, is described in the August 27 online issue of the journal Energy and Environmental Science. The work was done by researchers in the laboratories of Lewis and Harry Atwater, director of JCAP and Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science.

The new system consists of three main components: two electrodes—one photoanode and one photocathode—and a membrane. The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules, generating protons and electrons as well as oxygen gas. The photocathode recombines the protons and electrons to form hydrogen gas. A key part of the JCAP design is the plastic membrane, which keeps the oxygen and hydrogen gases separate. If the two gases are allowed to mix and are accidentally ignited, an explosion can occur; the membrane lets the hydrogen fuel be separately collected under pressure and safely pushed into a pipeline.

Semiconductors such as silicon or gallium arsenide absorb light efficiently and are therefore used in solar panels. However, these materials also oxidize (or rust) on the surface when exposed to water, so cannot be used to directly generate fuel. A major advance that allowed the integrated system to be developed was previous work in Lewis’s laboratory, which showed that adding a nanometers-thick layer of titanium dioxide (TiO)—a material found in white paint and many toothpastes and sunscreens—onto the electrodes could prevent them from corroding while still allowing light and electrons to pass through. The new complete solar fuel generation system developed by Lewis and colleagues uses such a 62.5-nanometer-thick TiO layer to effectively prevent corrosion and improve the stability of a gallium arsenide–based photoelectrode.

Photosynthesis to create hydrogen energy

Caltech research team sets up the demonstrator. Photo credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech

Another key advance is the use of active, inexpensive catalysts for fuel production. The photoanode requires a catalyst to drive the essential water-splitting reaction. Rare and expensive metals such as platinum can serve as effective catalysts, but in its work the team discovered that it could create a much cheaper, active catalyst by adding a 2-nanometer-thick layer of nickel to the surface of the TiO. This catalyst is among the most active known catalysts for splitting water molecules into oxygen, protons, and electrons and is a key to the high efficiency displayed by the device.

The photoanode was grown onto a photocathode, which also contains a highly active, inexpensive, nickel-molybdenum catalyst, to create a fully integrated single material that serves as a complete solar-driven water-splitting system.

A critical component that contributes to the efficiency and safety of the new system is the special plastic membrane that separates the gases and prevents the possibility of an explosion, while still allowing the ions to flow seamlessly to complete the electrical circuit in the cell. All of the components are stable under the same conditions and work together to produce a high-performance, fully integrated system.

“Our work shows that it is indeed possible to produce fuels from sunlight safely and efficiently in an integrated system with inexpensive components,” Lewis adds, “Of course, we still have work to do to extend the lifetime of the system and to develop methods for cost-effectively manufacturing full systems, both of which are in progress.”

Source: Caltech, Cleantech Concepts

About Tom Breunig (63 Articles)
Tom Breunig is principal at Cleantech Concepts, a market research firm tracking R&D projects in the cleantech sector. He is a technology industry veteran and former international marketing and communications executive who has worked with organizations in semiconductor design, water monitoring, energy efficiency and environmental sensing. He has spoken at numerous technology and energy conferences.
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