How to Make Renewable Energy from Water

One prospective source of renewable energy is hydrogen gas produced from water with the aid of sunlight. Researchers at Linköping University (LiU) in Sweden have developed a material, nanoporous cubic silicon carbide, that exhibits promising properties to capture solar energy and split water for hydrogen gas production.

Cubic silicon carbide immersed in water

New sustainable energy systems are needed to meet global energy and environmental challenges, such as increasing carbon dioxide emissions and climate change”, says Jianwu Sun, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University, who has led the new study that has been published in the journal ACS Nano.

Hydrogen has an energy density three times that of petrol. It can be used to generate electricity using a fuel cell, and hydrogen-fuelled cars are already commercially available. When hydrogen gas is used to produce energy, the only product formed is pure water. In contrast, however, carbon dioxide is created when the hydrogen is produced, since the most commonly used technology used today depends on fossil fuels for the process. Thus, 9-12 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted when one tonne of’ hydrogen gas is produced.

Producing hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules with the aid of solar energy is a sustainable approach that could give hydrogen gas using renewable sources without leading to carbon dioxide emissions. A major advantage of this method is the possibility to convert solar energy to fuel that can be stored. “Conventional solar cells produce energy during the daytime, and the energy must either be used immediately, or stored in, for example, batteries. Hydrogen is a promising source of energy that can be stored and transported in the same way as traditional fuels such as petrol and diesel”, says Jianwu Sun.

It is not, however, an easy task to split water using the energy in sunlight to give hydrogen gas. For this to succeed, it is necessary to find cost-efficient materials that have the right properties for the reaction in which water (H2O) is split into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) through photo-electrolysis. The energy in sunlight that can be used to split water is mostly in the form of ultraviolet radiation and visible light. Therefore, a material is required that can efficiently absorb such radiation to create charges that can be separated and have enough energy to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Most materials that have been investigated until now are either inefficient in the way they use the energy of visible sunlight (titanium dioxide, TiO2, for example, absorbs only ultraviolet sunlight), or do not have the properties needed to split water to hydrogen gas (for instance, silicon, Si).

Jianwu Sun’s research group has investigated cubic silicon carbide, 3C-SiC. The scientists have produced a form of cubic silicon carbide that has many extremely small pores. The material, which they call nanoporous 3C-SiC, has promising properties that suggest it can be used to produce hydrogen gas from water using sunlight. The present study has been published in the journal ACS Nano, and in it the researchers show that this new porous material can efficiently trap and harvest ultraviolet and most of the visible sunlight. Furthermore, the porous structure promotes the separation of charges that have the required energy, while the small pores give a larger active surface area. This enhances charge transfer and increases the number of reaction sites, thus further boosting the water splitting efficiency.

The main result we have shown is that nanoporous cubic silicon carbide has a higher charge-separation efficiency, which makes the splitting of water to hydrogen much better than when using planar silicon carbide”, says Jianwu Sun.


How To Address Global Warming

Harvesting sunlight, researchers of the Center for Integrated Nanostructure Physics, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS, South Korea) published in Materials Today a new strategy to transform carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (O2) and pure carbon monoxide (CO) without side-products in water. This artificial photosynthesis method could bring new solutions to environmental pollution and global warming.

While, in green plants, photosynthesis fixes CO2 into sugars, the artificial photosynthesis reported in this study can convert CO2 into oxygen and pure CO as output. The latter can then be employed for a broad range of applications in electronics, semiconductor, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries. The key is to find the right high-performance photocatalyst to help the photosynthesis take place by absorbing light, convert CO2, and ensuring an efficient flow of electrons, which is essential for the entire system.

Titanium oxide (TiO2) is a well-known photocatalyst. It has already attracted significant attention in the fields of solar energy conversion and environmental protection due to its high reactivity, low toxicity, chemical stability, and low cost. While conventional TiO2 can absorb only UV light, the IBS research team reported previously two different types of blue-colored TiO2 (or “blue titania”) nanoparticles that could absorb visible light.

For the efficient artificial photosynthesis for the conversion of CO2 into oxygen and pure CO, IBS researchers aimed to improve the performance of these nanoparticles. The resulted  hybrid nanoparticles showed about 200 times higher performance than nanoparticles made of TiO2 alone and TiO2/WO3 without silver.


New Solar Cells Could Harvest 85% of Visible Light

Scientists have developed a photoelectrode that can harvest 85 percent of visible light in a 30 nanometers-thin semiconductor layer between gold layers, converting light energy 11 times more efficiently than previous methods. In the pursuit of realizing a sustainable society, there is an ever-increasing demand to develop revolutionary solar cells or artificial photosynthesis systems that utilize visible light energy from the sun while using as few materials as possible. The research team, led by Professor Hiroaki Misawa of the Research Institute for Electronic Science at Hokkaido University (Japan), has been aiming to develop a photoelectrode that can harvest visible light across a wide spectral range by using gold nanoparticles loaded on a semiconductor. But merely applying a layer of gold nanoparticles did not lead to a sufficient amount of light absorption, because they took in light with only a narrow spectral range.

In the study published in Nature Nanotechnology, the research team sandwiched a semiconductor, a 30-nanometer titanium dioxide thin-film, between a 100-nanometer gold film and gold nanoparticles to enhance light absorption. When the system is irradiated by light from the gold nanoparticle side, the gold film worked as a mirror, trapping the light in a cavity between two gold layers and helping the nanoparticles absorb more light. To their surprise, more than 85 percent of all visible light was harvested by the photoelectrode, which was far more efficient than previous methods. Gold nanoparticles are known to exhibit a phenomenon called localized plasmon resonance which absorbs a certain wavelength of light.

“Our photoelectrode successfully created a new condition in which plasmon and visible light trapped in the titanium oxide layer strongly interact, allowing light with a broad range of wavelengths to be absorbed by gold nanoparticles,” says Hiroaki Misawa.