"This is a proof-of-concept system that is very inefficient. But ultimately, catalytic systems with 10 to 15 percent solar conversion efficiency might be achievable," says Thomas E. Mallouk, the DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics. "If this could be realized, water photolysis would provide a clean source of hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight."
Although solar cells can now produce electricity from visible light at efficiencies of greater than 10 percent, solar hydrogen cells – like those developed by Craig Grimes, professor of electrical engineering at Penn State – have been limited by the poor spectral response of the semiconductors used. In principle, molecular light absorbers can use more of the visible spectrum in a process that is mimetic of natural photosynthesis. Photosynthesis uses chlorophyll and other dye molecules to absorb visible light.
So far, experiments with natural and synthetic dye molecules have produced either hydrogen or oxygen-using chemicals consumed in the process, but have not yet created an ongoing, continuous process. Those processes also generally would cost more than splitting water with electricity. One reason for the difficulty is that once produced, hydrogen and oxygen easily recombine. The catalysts that have been used to study the oxygen and hydrogen half-reactions are also good catalysts for the recombination reaction.
Mallouk and W. Justin Youngblood, postdoctoral fellow in chemistry, together with collaborators at Arizona State University, developed a catalyst system that, combined with a dye, can mimic the electron transfer and water oxidation processes that occur in plants during photosynthesis. They reported the results of their experiments at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 17) in Boston.
The key to their process is a tiny complex of molecules with a center catalyst of iridium oxide molecules surrounded by orange-red dye molecules. These clusters are about 2 nanometers in diameter with the catalyst and dye components approximately the same size. The researchers chose orange-red dye because it absorbs sunlight in the blue range, which has the most energy. The dye used has also been thoroughly studied in previous artificial photosynthesis experiments.
They space the dye molecules around the center core leaving surface area on the catalyst for the reaction. When visible light strikes the dye, the energy excites electrons in the dye, which, with the help of the catalyst, can split the water molecule, creating free oxygen.
"Each surface iridium atom can cycle through the water oxidation reaction about 50 times per second," says Mallouk. "That is about three orders of magnitude faster than the next best synthetic catalysts, and comparable to the turnover rate of Photosystem II in green plant photosynthesis." Photosystem II is the protein complex in plants that oxidizes water and starts the photosynthetic process.
The researchers impregnated a titanium dioxide electrode with the catalyst complex for the anode and used a platinum cathode. They immersed the electrodes in a salt solution, but separated them from each other to avoid the problem of the hydrogen and oxygen recombining. Light need only shine on the dye-sensitized titanium dioxide anode for the system to work. This type of cell is similar to those that produce electricity, but the addition of the catalyst allows the reaction to split the water into its component gases.
The water splitting requires 1.23 volts, and the current experimental configuration cannot quite achieve that level so the researchers add about 0.3 volts from an outside source. Their current system achieves an efficiency of about 0.3 percent.
"Nature is only 1 to 3 percent efficient with photosynthesis," says Mallouk. "Which is why you can not expect the clippings from your lawn to power your house and your car. We would like not to have to use all the land area that is used for agriculture to get the energy we need from solar cells."
The researchers have a variety of approaches to improve the process. They plan to investigate improving the efficiency of the dye, improving the catalyst and adjusting the general geometry of the system. Rather than spherical dye catalyst complexes, a different geometry that keeps more of the reacting area available to the sun and the reactants might be better. Improvements to the overall geometry may also help.
"At every branch in the process, there is a choice," says Mallouk. "The question is how to get the electrons to stay in the proper path and not, for example, release their energy and go down to ground state without doing any work."
The distance between molecules is important in controlling the rate of electron transfer and getting the electrons where they need to go. By shortening some of the distances and making others longer, more of the electrons would take the proper path and put their energy to work splitting water and producing hydrogen.
Andrea Elyse Messer | EurekAlert!
Researchers measure near-perfect performance in low-cost semiconductors
18.03.2019 | Stanford University
Robot arms with the flexibility of an elephant’s trunk
18.03.2019 | Universität des Saarlandes
DESY and MPSD scientists create high-order harmonics from solids with controlled polarization states, taking advantage of both crystal symmetry and attosecond electronic dynamics. The newly demonstrated technique might find intriguing applications in petahertz electronics and for spectroscopic studies of novel quantum materials.
The nonlinear process of high-order harmonic generation (HHG) in gases is one of the cornerstones of attosecond science (an attosecond is a billionth of a...
Nano- and microtechnology are promising candidates not only for medical applications such as drug delivery but also for the creation of little robots or flexible integrated sensors. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) have created magnetic microparticles, with a newly developed method, that could pave the way for building micro-motors or guiding drugs in the human body to a target, like a tumor. The preparation of such structures as well as their remote-control can be regulated using magnetic fields and therefore can find application in an array of domains.
The magnetic properties of a material control how this material responds to the presence of a magnetic field. Iron oxide is the main component of rust but also...
Due to the special arrangement of its molecules, a new coating made of corn starch is able to repair small scratches by itself through heat: The cross-linking via ring-shaped molecules makes the material mobile, so that it compensates for the scratches and these disappear again.
Superficial micro-scratches on the car body or on other high-gloss surfaces are harmless, but annoying. Especially in the luxury segment such surfaces are...
The Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI) at the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona released its first image of the surface magnetic field of another star. In a paper in the European journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the PEPSI team presents a Zeeman- Doppler-Image of the surface of the magnetically active star II Pegasi.
A special technique allows astronomers to resolve the surfaces of faraway stars. Those are otherwise only seen as point sources, even in the largest telescopes...
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have proposed a way to create a completely new source of radiation. Ultra-intense light pulses consist of the motion of a single wave and can be described as a tsunami of light. The strong wave can be used to study interactions between matter and light in a unique way. Their research is now published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.
"This source of radiation lets us look at reality through a new angle - it is like twisting a mirror and discovering something completely different," says...
11.03.2019 | Event News
01.03.2019 | Event News
28.02.2019 | Event News
22.03.2019 | Life Sciences
22.03.2019 | Life Sciences
22.03.2019 | Information Technology