‘Artificial leaf’ moves closer to reality

MIT researchers develop a device that combines a solar cell with a catalyst to split water molecules and generate energy.

An important step toward realizing the dream of an inexpensive and simple “artificial leaf,” a device to harness solar energy by splitting water molecules, has been accomplished by two separate teams of researchers at MIT. Both teams produced devices that combine a standard silicon solar cell with a catalyst developed three years ago by professor Daniel Nocera. When submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, the devices cause bubbles of oxygen to separate out of the water.

PNAS – Photo-assisted water oxidation with cobalt-based catalyst formed from thin-film cobalt metal on silicon photoanodes

The next step to producing a full, usable artificial leaf, explains Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and professor of chemistry, will be to integrate the final ingredient: an additional catalyst to bubble out the water’s hydrogen atoms. In the current devices, hydrogen atoms are simply dissociated into the solution as loose protons and electrons. If a catalyst could produce fully formed hydrogen molecules (H2), the molecules could be used to generate electricity or to make fuel for vehicles. Realization of that step, Nocera says, will be the subject of a forthcoming paper.

The reports by the two teams were published in the journals Energy & Environmental Science on May 12, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 6. Nocera encouraged two different teams to work on the project so that each could bring their special expertise to addressing the problem, and says the fact that both succeeded “speaks to the versatility of the catalyst system.”

Ultimately, Nocera wants to produce a low-cost device that could be used where electricity is unavailable or unreliable. It would consist of a glass container full of water, with a solar cell with the catalysts on its two sides attached to a divider separating the container into two sections. When exposed to the sun, the electrified catalysts would produce two streams of bubbles — hydrogen on one side, oxygen on the other — which could be collected in two tanks, and later recombined through a fuel cell or other device to generate electricity when needed.

Buonassisi’s team used a different approach, coating the silicon with a protective layer. “We did it by putting a thin film of indium tin oxide on top,” explains Joep Pijpers, a postdoc who was the lead author of the PNAS paper. Using its expertise in the design of silicon devices, that team then concentrated on matching the current output of the solar cell as closely as possible to the current consumption by the (catalyzed) water-splitting reaction. The system still needs to be optimized, Pijpers says, to improve the efficiency by a factor of 10 to bring it to a range comparable to conventional solar cells.

“It’s really not trivial, integrating a low-cost, high-performance silicon device with the Co-Pi,” Buonassisi says. “There’s a substantial amount of innovation in both device processing and architecture.”

Both teams had to add an extra power source to the system, because the voltage produced by a single-junction silicon cell is not high enough to use for powering the water-splitting catalyst. In later versions, two or three silicon solar cells will be used in series to provide the needed voltage without the need for any extra power source, the researchers say.

Although the two approaches to bonding the catalyst with a silicon cell appear to produce functioning, stable devices, so far they have only been tested over periods of a few days. The expectation is that they will be stable for long periods, but accelerated aging tests will need to be performed to confirm this.

Rajeshwar Krishnan, Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, says it remains to be seen “whether this ‘self-healing’ catalyst would hold up to several hours of current flow … under rather harsh oxidative conditions.” But he adds that these papers “certainly move the science forward. The state of the science in water photo-oxidation uses rather expensive noble metal oxides,” whereas this work uses Earth-abundant, low-cost materials. He adds that while there is still no good storage or distribution system in place for hydrogen, “it is likely that the solar photon-to-hydrogen technology will ultimately see the light of day — for transportation applications — with the hydrogen internal combustion engine.”

Meanwhile, Nocera has founded a company called Sun Catalytix, which will initially be producing a first-generation system based on the Co-Pi catalyst material, connected by wires to conventional, separate solar cells.

The “leaf” system, by contrast, is “still a science project,” Nocera says. “We haven’t even gotten to what I would call an engineering design.” He hopes, however, that the artificial leaf could become a reality within three years.

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