To artificially reproduce the process of photosynthesis has been the “Holy Grail” for clean energy generation, and Cambridge University has positioned itself at the lead in the development of this technology. The British university’s researchers just hit another important breakthrough in this field, by producing an artificial leaf embedded with photo catalyzers that can turn sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into clean fuels.
The research was conducted by a team led by Professor Erwin Reisner, from the university’s Chemistry Department. In the last decade, the group has accomplished promising advances in energy research.
In 2013, for instance, the team devised a method to produce hydrogen using cobalt as a cheap catalyzer. In 2017, they also managed to produce gas using biomass as a starting point. In the near future, scientists hope to use this new device in huge energy power plants.
Artificial leaf and artificial photosynthesis
The development of artificial photosynthesis took its first step in 2019, when Reisner’s team of researchers developed a solar reactor based on the design of the artificial leaf, which also uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce fuel, known as synthesis gas.
The device captures light trough sheets made of perovskite, a component used in some solar cells. But the team has made some readjustments to their approach.
Following these changes, they developed a new platform that, instead of perovskite light absorbers, relies on novel photocatalysts embedded in a sheet composed of semiconductor powders. Among other advantages, they can be produced easily and at a low cost.
The new 20 cm2 sheet developed as a test unit was used to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and formic acid (instead of syngas), which can be easily stored for direct use as fuel or later as a hydrogen building block. The tests were coordinated by Dr. Qian Wang, also from the Department of Chemistry.
From CO2 to clean fuel
The research team explained that this method is a completely new way to convert carbon dioxide into clean fuel. Moreover, scientists believe is could be easily carried out on a large scale. This way, it should be relatively easy to produce versions of up to several meters. In the future, this type of devices could be part of clean energy generation facilities like solar power plants.
“We were surprised how well it worked in terms of its selectivity. Sometimes things don’t work things don’t work as well as you expected, but this was a rare case where it actually worked better.”
The team indicates that the new technology for artificial photosynthesis have multiple advantages over previous similar devices. While the artificial leaf uses components from solar cells, the new prototype does not require these components. The sheets are made up of semiconductor powders, which can be prepared in large quantities easily and cost-effectively.
This technology is also more robust and produces clean fuel that is easier to store. The researchers are exploring other catalyzers to improve both its stability and efficiency.
These advances could enable to produce several types of solar fuels. “We hope this technology will pave the way toward sustainable and practical solar fuel production,” Reisner stated. Current results were obtained in collaboration with the team led by Professor Kazunari Doman from the University of Tokyo, co-author of this research.
For more information, check Energía16