Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Using rust and water to store solar energy as hydrogen

12.11.2012
EPFL scientists are producing hydrogen from sunlight, water and rust - They're paving the way for an economic and ecological solution for storing renewable energy

How can solar energy be stored so that it can be available any time, day or night, when the sun shining or not? EPFL scientists are developing a technology that can transform light energy into a clean fuel that has a neutral carbon footprint: hydrogen.

The basic ingredients of the recipe are water and metal oxides, such as iron oxide, better known as rust. Kevin Sivula and his colleagues purposefully limited themselves to inexpensive materials and easily scalable production processes in order to enable an economically viable method for solar hydrogen production. The device, still in the experimental stages, is described in an article published in the journal Nature Photonics.

The idea of converting solar energy into hydrogen is not a new one; researchers have been working on it for more than four decades. During the 1990s, EPFL joined the fray, with the research of Michaël Grätzel. With a colleague form University of Geneva, he invented the photoelectrochemical (PEC) tandem solar cell, a technique for producing hydrogen directly from water. Their prototypes shared the same basic principle: a dye-sensitized solar cell – also invented by Michael Grätzel – combined with an oxide-based semiconductor.

The device is completely self-contained. The electrons produced are used to break up water molecules and reform the pieces into oxygen and hydrogen. In the same liquid, two distinct layers in the device have the job of generating electrons when stimulated by light; an oxide semiconductor, which performs the oxygen evolution reaction, and a dye-sensitized cell, which liberates the hydrogen.

The most expensive part? The glass plate

The team's latest prototype focused on resolving the main outstanding problem with PEC technology: its cost. "A U.S. team managed to attain an impressive efficiency of 12.4%," says Sivula. "The system is very interesting from a theoretical perspective, but with their method it would cost 10,000 dollars to produce a 10 square centimeter surface."

So the scientists set themselves a limitation from the start – to use only affordable materials and techniques. It wasn't an easy task, but they managed. "The most expensive material in our device is the glass plate," explains Sivula. The efficiency is still low – between 1.4% and 3.6%, depending on the prototype used. But the technology has great potential. "With our less expensive concept based on iron oxide, we hope to be able to attain efficiencies of 10% in a few years, for less than $80 per square meter. At that price, we'll be competitive with traditional methods of hydrogen production."

The semiconductor, which performs the oxygen evolution reaction, is just iron oxide. "It's a stable and abundant material. There's no way it will rust any further! But it's one of the worst semiconductors available," Sivula admits.

Silicon-enhanced nano-rust

That's why the iron oxide used by the team is a bit more developed than what you'd find on an old nail. Nanostructured, enhanced with silicon oxide, covered with a nanometer-thin layer of aluminum oxide and cobalt oxide – these treatments optimize the electrochemical properties of the material, but are nonetheless simple to apply. "We needed to develop easy preparation methods, like ones in which you could just dip or paint the material."

The second part of the device is composed of a dye and titanium dioxide – the basic ingredients of a dye-sensitized solar cell. This second layer lets the electrons transferred by the iron oxide gain enough energy to extract hydrogen from water.

An outstanding potential – up to 16%

The results presented in the Nature Photonics paper represent a breakthrough in performance that has been enabled by recent advances in the study of both the iron oxide and dye-sensitized titanium dioxide, and both of these technologies are rapidly advancing. Sivula predicts that the tandem cell technology will eventually be able to attain an efficiency of 16% with iron oxide, while still remaining low cost, which is, after all, the attractiveness of the approach. By making it possible to store solar energy inexpensively, the system developed at EPFL could considerably increase the potential of solar energy to serve as a viable renewable energy source for the future.

Lionel Pousaz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.epfl.ch

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Nano-scale process may speed arrival of cheaper hi-tech products
09.11.2018 | University of Edinburgh

nachricht Nuclear fusion: wrestling with burning questions on the control of 'burning plasmas'
25.10.2018 | Lehigh University

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.

Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...

Im Focus: A Chip with Blood Vessels

Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.

Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...

Im Focus: A Leap Into Quantum Technology

Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.

In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...

Im Focus: Research icebreaker Polarstern begins the Antarctic season

What does it look like below the ice shelf of the calved massive iceberg A68?

On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.

Im Focus: Penn engineers develop ultrathin, ultralight 'nanocardboard'

When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure

Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Optical Coherence Tomography: German-Japanese Research Alliance hosted Medical Imaging Conference

19.11.2018 | Event News

“3rd Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP 2018” Attracts International Experts and Users

09.11.2018 | Event News

On the brain’s ability to find the right direction

06.11.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

New materials: Growing polymer pelts

19.11.2018 | Materials Sciences

Earthquake researchers finalists for supercomputing prize

19.11.2018 | Information Technology

Controlling organ growth with light

19.11.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>