Saving the sun for later at night: Scientists convert solar energy to hydrogen
Process takes its cue from natural photosynthesis
Clean, ever available solar energy has always faced a major roadblock when coming to practical application: The sun is only available for about 12 hours a day. That hurdle may have been climbed, as scientists have now built a system that converts the sun's energy into hydrogen fuel during the day. This stores the energy for later use, allowing people to power their devices even at night.
Tom Meyer at the Energy Frontier Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says they have built a system that converts the sun's energy into hydrogen fuel and stores it for later use.
"So called 'solar fuels' like hydrogen offer a solution to how to store energy for nighttime use by taking a cue from natural photosynthesis," Meyer says.
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"Our new findings may provide a last major piece of a puzzle for a new way to store the Sun's energy - it could be a tipping point for a solar energy future," he said.
Designed by Meyer and his colleagues, along with Greg Parsons' group at North Carolina State is known as a dye-sensitized photo-electrosynthesis cell, or DSPEC, which generates hydrogen fuel by using solar energy to split water into its component parts.
Once separated, hydrogen is sequestered and stored, while the byproduct, oxygen is released into the air.
"But splitting water is extremely difficult to do," Meyer says. "You need to take four electrons away from two water molecules, transfer them somewhere else, and make hydrogen, and, once you have done that, keep the hydrogen and oxygen separated. How to design molecules capable of doing that is a really big challenge that we've begun to overcome," he said.
Investigating DSPECs for years, Meyer's design has two basic components: a molecule and a nano-particle. The molecule, called a chromophore-catalyst assembly, absorbs the sun's energy and then activates the catalyst to rip electrons away from water.
The nano-particle, to which thousands of chromophore-catalyst assemblies are tethered, is part of a film of nano-particles that shuttles the electrons away to make the hydrogen fuel.
Much work remains to be done. The system has continually crashed because either the chromophore-catalyst assembly kept breaking away from the nano-particles or because the electrons couldn't be shuttled away quickly enough to make hydrogen.
Meyer turned to the Parsons group to use a technique that coated the nano-particle, atom by atom, with a thin layer of a material called titanium dioxide. Researchers found that using even finer layers, the nano-particle could carry away electrons far more rapidly than before, with the freed electrons available to make hydrogen.
They have since designed a protective coating that keeps the chromophore-catalyst assembly tethered firmly to the nano-particle, ensuring that the assembly stayed on the surface.
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