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In Switzerland, Ecole Polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) researchers have invented a solar-powered artificial leaf, built on a novel electrode which is transparent and porous, capable of harvesting water from the air for conversion into hydrogen fuel. The semiconductor-based technology is scalable and easy to prepare.
A device that can harvest water from the air and provide hydrogen fuel—entirely powered by solar energy—has been a dream for researchers for decades. Now, EPFL chemical engineer Kevin Sivula and his team have made a significant step towards bringing this vision closer to reality. They have developed an ingenious yet simple system that combines semiconductor-based technology with novel electrodes that have two key characteristics: they are porous, to maximize contact with water in the air; and transparent, to maximize sunlight exposure of the semiconductor coating. When the device is simply exposed to sunlight, it takes water from the air and produces hydrogen gas. The results are published on 4 January 2023 in Advanced Materials.
In their research for renewable fossil-free fuels, the EPFL engineers in collaboration with Toyota Motor Europe, took inspiration from the way plants are able to convert sunlight into chemical energy using carbon dioxide from the air. A plant essentially harvests carbon dioxide and water from its environment, and with the extra boost of energy from sunlight, can transform these molecules into sugars and starches, a process known as photosynthesis. The sunlight’s energy is stored in the form of chemical bonds inside of the sugars and starches.
The transparent gas diffusion electrodes developed by Sivula and his team, when coated with a light harvesting semiconductor material, indeed act like an artificial leaf, harvesting water from the air and sunlight to produce hydrogen gas. The sunlight’s energy is stored in the form of hydrogen bonds.
Instead of building electrodes with traditional layers that are opaque to sunlight, their substrate is actually a 3-dimensional mesh of felted glass fibers.
The current focus of the researchers is to optimize the system in order to advance this technology, and to develop new ways to transform hydrogen into liquid fuels.