Stanford Designs Underwater Solar Cells That Convert Greenhouse Gases Into Fuel

Originally published on CleanTechnica.

Imagine a process where underwater solar cells could one day play a key role in fighting climate change. Stanford engineers did just that. They have provided design principles to build energy efficient, corrosion-protected solar cells. The impacts of this research are far-reaching for the solar industry and the battle against climate change.

Importantly, writes Stanford reporter Ramin Skibba, this process might be a huge leap in remaking greenhouse gases into something good.

“Instead of pumping electricity into the grid, though, the power these cells produce would be used to spur chemical reactions to convert captured greenhouse gases into fuel. 

“This new work, published in Nature Materials, was led by Stanford materials scientist Paul McIntyre, whose lab has been a pioneer in an emerging field known as artificial photosynthesis.”

Stanford 15871-watersolarbig_newsUsing the sun’s energy to combine water and carbon dioxide to create chemical products is a process known as artificial photosynthesis.

Corrosion-resistant underwater solar cells and potential uses

In plants, photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to combine water and carbon dioxide to create sugar, the fuel on which they live. Artificial photosynthesis applied in underwater solar cells uses the energy from specialized solar cells that combines water with captured carbon dioxide to produce industrial fuels.

Artificial photosynthesis has faced two challenges: ordinary silicon solar cells corrode under water and corrosion-proof solar cells have been unable to capture enough sunlight under water to drive the chemical reactions.

But in 2011, McIntyre’s lab developed solar cells resistant to corrosion in water. In the new paper, McIntyre and doctoral student Andrew Scheuermann show how to increase the power of corrosion-resistant solar cells, setting a record for solar energy output under water.

“The results reported in this paper are significant because they represent not only an advance in performance of silicon artificial photosynthesis cells, but also establish the design rules needed to achieve high performance for a wide array of different semiconductors, corrosion protection layers and catalysts,” McIntyre has said.

On a global scale, this process might play a key role in fighting climate change. The idea is to funnel greenhouse gases from smokestacks or the atmosphere into giant, transparent chemical tanks. Solar cells inside the tanks would spur chemical reactions to turn the greenhouse gases and water into what are sometimes called “solar fuels.”

“We have now achieved the corrosion resistance and the energy output required for viable systems,” Scheuermann said. “Within five years, we will have complete artificial photosynthesis systems that convert greenhouse gases into fuel.”

Image via Stanford News

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