A Dual Function Solar Cell Generating Electricity and Hydrogen Fuel

Researchers have come up with an artificial photosynthesis device called a "hybrid photoelectrochemical and voltaic (HPEV) cell" that turns sunlight and water into not just one, but two types of energy - hydrogen fuel and electricity.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) renowned for having 12 researchers associated with it win the Nobel Prize and for important discoveries like the elements “Berkelium” and study of “antiproton,” and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, have come up with an artificial photosynthesis device called a “hybrid photoelectrochemical and voltaic (HPEV) cell” that turns sunlight and water into two types of energy – hydrogen fuel and electricity.

“Water-splitting” devices, which use artificial photosynthesis to generate hydrogen from water had so far lacked a design for materials with the right mix of optical, electronic, and chemical properties needed for them to work efficiently, limiting the growth of the technology. 

[credit: Berkeley Lab, JCAP]

Most water-splitting devices are made of a stack of light-absorbing materials. Depending on its makeup, each layer absorbs different parts or “wavelengths” of the solar spectrum, ranging from less-energetic wavelengths of infrared light to more-energetic wavelengths of visible or ultraviolet light. When each layer absorbs light it builds an electrical voltage. These individual voltages combine into one voltage large enough to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel.  But a problem with this configuration is that even though silicon solar cells can generate electricity very close to their limit, their high-performance potential is compromised when they are part of a water-splitting device. 

“It’s like always running a car in first gear,” said Gideon Segev, a postdoctoral researcher at JCAP in Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division and the study’s lead author,. “This is energy that you could harvest, but because silicon isn’t acting at its maximum power point,most  of the excited electrons in the silicon have nowhere to go, so they lose their energy before they are utilized to do useful work.”

“We thought, ‘What if we just let the electrons out?” -Gideon Segev [credits: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab]

In water-splitting devices, the front surface is usually dedicated to solar fuels production, and the back surface serves as an electrical outlet. To work around the conventional system’s limitations, they added an additional electrical contact to the silicon component’s back surface, resulting in an HPEV device with two contacts in the back instead of just one. The extra back outlet would allow the current to be split into two, so that one part of the current contributes to solar fuels generation, and the rest can be extracted as electrical power.

According to their calculations, a conventional solar hydrogen generator based on a combination of silicon and bismuth vanadate, a material that is widely studied for solar water splitting, would generate hydrogen at a solar to hydrogen efficiency of 6.8 percent. In other words, out of all of the incident solar energy striking the surface of a cell, 6.8 percent will be stored in the form of hydrogen fuel, and all the rest is lost.

[credit: Berkeley Lab, JCAP]

In contrast, the HPEV cells harvest leftover electrons that do not contribute to fuel generation. These residual electrons are instead used to generate electrical power, resulting in a dramatic increase in the overall solar energy conversion efficiency, said Segev. For example, according to the same calculations, the same 6.8 percent of the solar energy can be stored as hydrogen fuel in an HPEV cell made of bismuth vanadate and silicon, and another 13.4 percent of the solar energy can be converted to electricity. This enables a combined efficiency of 20.2 percent, three times better than conventional solar hydrogen cells.

The team of Jeffrey W. Beeman, a JCAP researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division, and former Berkeley Lab and JCAP researchers Jeffery Greenblatt, and Ian Sharp, now a professor of experimental semiconductor physics at the Technical University of Munich in Germany plan to continue their collaboration so they can look into using the HPEV concept for other applications such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. “This was truly a group effort where people with a lot of experience were able to contribute,” added Segev. “After a year and a half of working together on a pretty tedious process, it was great to see our experiments finally come together.”

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Ayush Verma

Ayush Verma

Ayush is a correspondent at iamrenew.com and writes on renewable energy and sustainability. As an engineering graduate trying to find his niche in the energy journalism segment, he also works as a staff writer for saurenergy.com.

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