The finding is reported in the July 29 issue of Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. A provisional patent application has been filed.
Unlike conventional solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries, the new device essentially does the work of plants, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, solving two crucial problems at once. A solar farm of such “artificial leaves” could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and produce energy-dense fuel efficiently.
“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic—it’s photosynthetic,” says Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study.
“Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight,” he said.
While plants produce fuel in the form of sugar, the artificial leaf delivers syngas, or synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. Syngas can be burned directly, or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.
The ability to turn CO2 into fuel at a cost comparable to a gallon of gasoline would render fossil fuels obsolete.
Chemical reactions that convert CO2 into burnable forms of carbon are called reduction reactions, the opposite of oxidation or combustion. Engineers have been exploring different catalysts to drive CO2 reduction, but so far such reactions have been inefficient and rely on expensive precious metals such as silver, Salehi-Khojin said.
“What we needed was a new family of chemicals with extraordinary properties,” he said.
Salehi-Khojin and his coworkers focused on a family of nano-structured compounds called transition metal dichalcogenides—or TMDCs—as catalysts, pairing them with an unconventional ionic liquid as the electrolyte inside a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell.