Scientists recently discovered a way to formulate the atomic-scale chemical properties of water-splitting catalyst that can be integrated with a solar cell. It resulted in giving a huge boost to efficiency and stability of artificial photosynthesis. The research was led by researchers from Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who worked at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis to find an economic way to turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide to fuel. According to the lead investigator of this researcher, Ian Sharp, “In order for an artificial photosystem to be viable, we need to be able to make it once, deploy it, and have it last for 20 or more years without repairing it.” He is currently the head of materials integration and interface science research at JCAP.
The main challenge was that the active chemical environments required for artificial photosynthesis proved to be damaging for semiconductors that are used for capturing sunlight and empower the device. Sharp adds, “Good protection layers are dense and chemically inactive. That is completely at odds with the characteristics of an efficient catalyst, which helps to split water to store the energy of light in chemical bonds. The most efficient catalysts tend to be permeable and easily transform from one phase to another. These types of materials would usually be considered poor choices for protecting electronic components.”
The engineering of an atomically precise membrane supported the chemical reaction without causing any damage to the sensitive semiconductor. The team was able to meet all requirements of the artificial photosynthesis. The lead author of this study, Jinhui Yang says, “This gets into the key aspects of our work. We set out to turn the catalyst into a protective coating that balances these competing properties.” To formulate the catalyst, the used a technique called plasma-enhanced atomic layer deposition. It is one of the common methods used in the creation of integrated circuits in the semiconductor industry.
Yang adds, “This technique gave us the level of precision we needed to create the composite film. We were able to engineer a very thin layer to protect the sensitive semiconductor, then atomically join another active layer to carry out the catalytic reactions, all in a single process.”
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