Coupling of electrocatalysts to photoabsorbers for solar fuels production

The direct transformation of sunlight into fuels and chemicals has attracted considerable attention for the potential impact on the storage of solar energies at large scales and the reduction of CO2 emissions. More than 80% of our current global energy consumption comes from the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels which produces enormous quantities of CO2 and contributes to global warming. We believe today that the key to reduce our dependence on exhaustible natural resources and limit the emission of greenhouse gases is the transition to CO2-free renewable energy sources. However, harvesting of energy from renewable sources (i.e. solar, wind, tidal) is intermittent and the deployment of devices for their transformation into useful forms of energy (i.e. electricity, chemicals, fuels, biomass) in a global scale is conditioned upon the improvement in efficiency of the energy storage mechanisms. A promising approach to store energy is the use of sunlight to drive the production of hydrogen fuel from water. Hydrogen produced from water and sunlight can be transformed back to electricity on demand or be used to generate mechanical energy in cars to power the transportation industry. The oxidation of hydrogen generates useable energy and at the same time exhaust clean, carbon-free water as the only product. Therefore, the production of hydrogen using a renewable energy source in an efficient and inexpensive device has the potential to discourage the continued use of fossil fuels and improve our environment. The viability of any mechanism for the storage of sunlight as fuel will depend on the reduction of energy penalties during the transformation process. Electrocatalysts are advanced materials that bring into one active site electrons and molecules in the appropriate orientation to lower activation energy barriers, accelerate rate of transformations and improve overall efficiencies for chemical reactions. The best catalysts for water splitting are precious metals such as Pt, Ir and Ru, which show superior rates of reaction at low overpotentials. However, these noble metals are too expensive and scarce for large scale applications. This thesis summarizes our recent research in the preparation, characterization, and application of Earth-abundant electrocatalysts for solar water splitting. Although in the last decade a great number of efficient and inexpensive electrocatalysts have been reported, methods for the deposition of these materials on the surface of photoabsorbers are rarely reported. This work shows various simple and scalable techniques for the deposition of hydrogen and oxygen evolving electrocatalysts on the surface of photocathodes and photoanodes, respectively. Surface-protected photocahodes were activated for solar hydrogen production in alkaline conditions with MoS2+x, Ni-Mo and Mo2C. A novel method for the deposition of an optically transparent amorphous iron nickel oxide oxygen evolution electrocatalyst is also reported. The catalyst was deposited on both thin film and high-aspect ratio nanostructured hematite photoanodes. The low catalyst loading combined with its high activity at low overpotential results in significant improvement on the onset potential for photoelectrochemical water oxidation. This transparent catalyst further enables the preparation of a stable hematite/perovskite solar cell tandem device, which performs unassisted water splitting.


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