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Artificial leaf harnesses sunlight for efficient fuel production, study reveals

A highly efficient photoelectrochemical (PEC) device uses the power of the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The stand-alone prototype includes two chambers separated by a semi-permeable membrane that allows collection of both gas products.                                                                                                                                                                                                         Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltec

A highly efficient photoelectrochemical (PEC) device uses the power of the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The stand-alone prototype includes two chambers separated by a semi-permeable membrane that allows collection of both gas products.<br />Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltec

A new solar fuel generation system, or artificial leaf, safely creates fuel from sunlight and water with record-setting efficiency and stability.

Generating and storing renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, is a key barrier to a clean-energy economy. When the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) was established at Caltech and its partnering institutions in 2010, the United States (U.S.) Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub had one main goal: a cost-effective method of producing fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, mimicking the natural process of photosynthesis in plants and storing energy in the form of chemical fuels for use on demand.

Over the past five years, researchers at JCAP 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.

“This result was a stretch project milestone for the entire five years of JCAP as a whole, and not only have we achieved this goal, we also achieved it on time and on budget,” says Caltech’s Nate Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and the JCAP scientific director.

The new solar fuel generation system, or artificial leaf, is described in the August 24 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.

“This accomplishment drew on the knowledge, insights and capabilities of JCAP, which illustrates what can be achieved in a Hub-scale effort by an integrated team,” Atwater says. “The device reported here grew out of a multi-year, large-scale effort to define the design and materials components needed for an integrated solar fuels generator.”

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 (TiO2)–a material found in white paint and many toothpastes and sunscreens–onto the electrodes could prevent them from corroding while still allowing light and elec



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