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Efficiently Harvests Hydrogen Fuel From Sun;
performance converts 12.3% through solar water splitting
- 2014 October #5-9
When an electrical current is applied, water
splits into hydrogen and oxygen. Credit: EPFL / LPI / Alain Herzog
Scientists have a new efficient way of producing hydrogen fuel from sunlight
and water. By combining a pair of solar cells made with a mineral called
perovskite and low cost electrodes, scientists have obtained a 12.3 percent
conversion efficiency from solar energy to hydrogen, a record using
Earth-abundant materials as opposed to rare metals.
September 25, 2014: The race is on to optimize solar energy’s performance.
More efficient silicon photovoltaic panels, dye-sensitized solar cells,
concentrated cells and thermodynamic solar plants all pursue the same goal:
to produce a maximum amount of electrons from sunlight. Those electrons can
then be converted into electricity to turn on lights and power your
At the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces at EPFL, led by Michael
Grätzel, where scientists invented dye solar cells that mimic photosynthesis
in plants, they have also developed methods for generating fuels such as
hydrogen through solar water splitting.
To do this, they either use photoelectrochemical cells that directly split
water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight, or they combine
electricity-generating cells with an electrolyzer that separates the water
By using the latter technique, Grätzel’s post-doctoral student Jingshan Luo
and his colleagues were able to obtain a performance so spectacular that
their achievement was published September 25 in the journal Science. Their
device converts into hydrogen 12.3 percent of the energy diffused by the sun
on perovskite absorbers, a compound that can be obtained in the laboratory
from common materials, such as those used in conventional car batteries,
eliminating the need for rare-earth metals in the production of usable
This high efficiency provides stiff competition for other techniques used to
convert solar energy. But this method has several advantages over others:
“Both the perovskite used in the cells and the nickel and iron catalysts
making up the electrodes require resources that are abundant on Earth and
that are also cheap,” explained Jingshan Luo. “However, our electrodes work
just as well as the expensive platinum-based models customarily used.”
On the other hand, the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen makes its
storage possible, which addresses one of the biggest disadvantages faced by
renewable electricity - the requirement to use it at the time it is
“Once you have hydrogen, you store it in a bottle and you
can do with it whatever you want to, whenever you want it.”
- Michael Grätzel, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
“Once you have hydrogen, you store it in a bottle and you can do with it
whatever you want to, whenever you want it,” said Michael Grätzel. Such a
gas can indeed be burned -- in a boiler or engine -- releasing only water
vapor. It can also pass into a fuel cell to generate electricity on demand.
And the 12.3% conversion efficiency achieved at EPFL “will soon get even
higher,” promised Grätzel.
More powerful cells
These high efficiency values are based on a characteristic of perovskite
cells: their ability to generate an open circuit voltage greater than 1 V
(silicon cells stop at 0.7 V, for comparison).
“A voltage of 1.7 V or more is required for water electrolysis to occur and
to obtain exploitable gases,” explained Jingshan Luo. To get these numbers,
three or more silicon cells are needed, whereas just two perovskite cells
are enough. As a result, there is more efficiency with respect to the
surface of the light absorbers required.
“This is the first time we have been able to get hydrogen through
electrolysis with only two cells!” Luo adds.
The profusion of tiny bubbles escaping from the electrodes as soon as the
solar cells are exposed to light say it better than words ever could: the
combination of sun and water paves a promising and effervescent way for
developing the energy of the future.
(Source: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. “Efficiently harvesting
hydrogen fuel from Sun using Earth-abundant materials.” ScienceDaily.
ScienceDaily, 25 September 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140925141232.htm)
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