The artificial leaf — a silicon solar cell with different catalytic materials bonded onto its two sides — needs no external wires or control circuits to operate. Simply placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, it quickly begins to generate streams of bubbles: oxygen bubbles from one side and hydrogen bubbles from the other. If placed in a container that has a barrier to separate the two sides, the two streams of bubbles can be collected and stored, and used later to deliver power: for example, by feeding them into a fuel cell that combines them once again into water while delivering an electric current.
The device, Nocera explains, is made entirely of earth-abundant, inexpensive materials — mostly silicon, cobalt and nickel — and works in ordinary water. Other attempts to produce devices that could use sunlight to split water have relied on corrosive solutions or on relatively rare and expensive materials such as platinum.
The artificial leaf is a thin sheet of semiconducting silicon — the material most solar cells are made of, which turns the energy of sunlight into a flow of wireless electricity within the sheet. Bound onto the silicon is a layer of a cobalt-based catalyst, which releases oxygen, a material whose potential for generating fuel from sunlight was discovered by Nocera and his colleagues in 2008. The other side of the silicon sheet is coated with a layer of a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy, which releases hydrogen from the water molecules.
"I think there’s going to be real opportunities for this idea," Nocera says. "You can’t get more portable — you don’t need wires, it’s lightweight," and it doesn’t require much in the way of additional equipment, other than a way of catching and storing the gases that bubble off. "You just drop it in a glass of water, and it starts splitting it," he says.
Now that the "leaf" has been demonstrated, Nocera suggests one possible further development: tiny particles made of these materials that can split water molecules when placed in sunlight — making them more like photosynthetic algae than leaves. The advantage of that, he says, is that the small particles would have much more surface area exposed to sunlight and the water, allowing them to harness the sun’s energy more efficiently. (On the other hand, engineering a system to separate and collect the two gases would be more complicated in such a setup.)
Ultimately, Nocera sees a future in which individual homes could be equipped with solar-collection systems based on this principle: panels on the roof could use sunlight to produce hydrogen and oxygen that would be stored in tanks, and then fed to a fuel cell whenever electricity is needed. Such systems, Nocera hopes, could be made simple and inexpensive enough so that they could be widely adopted throughout the world, including many areas that do not presently have access to reliable sources of electricity.
Nocera’s ongoing research with the artificial leaf is directed toward "driving costs lower and lower," he says, and looking at ways of improving the system’s efficiency. At present, the leaf can redirect about 2.5 percent of the energy of sunlight into hydrogen production in its wireless form; a variation using wires to connect the catalysts to the solar cell rather than bonding them together has attained 4.7 percent efficiency. (Typical commercial solar cells today have efficiencies of more than 10 percent). One question Nocera and his colleagues will be addressing is which of these configurations will be more efficient and cost-effective in the long run.
Another line of research is to explore the use of photovoltaic (solar cell) materials other than silicon — such as iron oxide, which might be even cheaper to produce. "It’s all about providing options for how you go about this," Nocera says.
Source and top image: Massachusetts Institute of Technology