“We’ve developed a method by which molecular hydrogen-producing catalysts can be interfaced with a semiconductor that absorbs visible light,” says Gary Moore, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and principal investigator for JCAP. “Our experimental results indicate that the catalyst and the light-absorber are interfaced structurally as well as functionally.”
Moore is the corresponding author, along with Junko Yano and Ian Sharp, who also hold joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and JCAP, of a paper describing this research in theJournal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The article is titled “Photofunctional Construct That Interfaces Molecular Cobalt-Based Catalysts for H2Production to a Visible-Light-Absorbing Semiconductor.” Co-authors are Alexandra Krawicz, Jinhui Yang and Eitan Anzenberg.
Earth receives more energy in one hour’s worth of sunlight than all of humanity uses in an entire year. Through the process of photosynthesis, green plants harness solar energy to split molecules of water into oxygen, hydrogen ions (protons) and free electrons. The oxygen is released as waste and the protons and electrons are used to convert carbon dioxide into the carbohydrate sugars that plants use for energy. Scientists aim to mimic the concept but improve upon the actual process.
JCAP, which has a northern branch in Berkeley and a southern branch on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), was established in 2010 by DOE as an Energy Innovation Hub. Operated as a partnership between Caltech and Berkeley Lab, JCAP is the largest research program in the United States dedicated to developing an artificial solar-fuel technology. While artificial photosynthesis can be used to generate electricity, fuels can be a more effective means of storing and transporting energy. The goal is an artificial photosynthesis system that’s at least 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis.
To this end, once photoanodes have used solar energy to split water molecules, JCAP scientists need high performance semiconductor photocathodes that can use solar energy to catalyze fuel production. In previous efforts to produce hydrogen fuel, catalysts have been immobilized on non-photoactive substrates. This approach requires the application of an external electrical potential to generate hydrogen. Moore and his colleagues have combined these steps into a single material.