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A Device Generates Hydrogen From Sunlight

Rice University engineers have achieved record-breaking solar-to-hydrogen efficiency using integrated halide perovskite semiconductors and electrocatalysts.

Series of four still images from a sample video showing how a photoreactor from Rice University splits water molecules and generates hydrogen when stimulated by simulated sunlight. Credit: Mohite lab/Rice University

In an era marked by growing environmental concerns and the urgent need for sustainable energy solutions, researchers worldwide have turned their attention towards harnessing the power of sunlight to address these pressing challenges. The quest for clean and sustainable energy solutions has reached a significant milestone.

Rice University engineers have converted sunlight into hydrogen with unprecedented efficiency. This accomplishment is made possible through a device that integrates cutting-edge halide perovskite semiconductors and electrocatalysts into a single, durable, cost-effective, and easily scalable unit. The technology represents a significant stride for clean energy and offers a versatile platform for various solar-driven chemical reactions, transforming feedstocks into fuels efficiently.

The researchers emphasized that utilizing sunlight as an energy source for chemical production is a significant challenge. The team aims to construct economically viable platforms capable of generating solar-derived fuels. Their solution involved designing a system that absorbs light and conducts electrochemical water-splitting chemistry on its surface. The photoelectrochemical cell combines light absorption, electricity conversion, and chemical reaction within the same device. Prior obstacles to green hydrogen production included low efficiencies and costly semiconductors.

The team have transformed their efficient solar cell into a reactor, enabling it to utilize harvested energy for water splitting into oxygen and hydrogen. However, a significant obstacle arose as halide perovskites proved highly unstable in water, and the coatings intended to insulate the semiconductors caused disruption or damage to their functionality. The researchers have recognized the significance of a dual-layer barrier, comprising one layer to prevent water infiltration and another to establish optimal electrical contact between the perovskite layers and the protective coating. Their research yielded the highest efficiency among photoelectrochemical cells without solar concentration and stood out as the overall best for devices utilizing halide perovskite semiconductors.

The researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of their barrier design in various reactions and with diverse semiconductors, indicating its broad applicability across numerous systems. The team hoped these systems would act as a platform for propelling different electrons toward fuel-forming reactions, utilizing abundant feedstocks and relying solely on sunlight as the energy source.

Reference: Austin M. K. Fehr et al, Integrated halide perovskite photoelectrochemical cells with solar-driven water-splitting efficiency of 20.8%, Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39290-y

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