First fully integrated artificial photosynthesis nanosystem

May 20, 2013

Arrays of tree-like nanowires consisting of Si trunks and TiO2 branches facilitate solar water-splitting in a fully integrated artificial photosynthesis system (credit: Chong Liu et al./Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientists have developed the first fully integrated nanosystem for artificial photosynthesis,  in which solar energy is directly converted into chemical fuels.

“Similar to the chloroplasts in green plants that carry out photosynthesis, our artificial photosynthetic system is composed of two semiconductor light absorbers, an interfacial layer for charge transport, and spatially separated co-catalysts,” says Peidong Yang, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, who led this research.

“To facilitate solar water- splitting in our system, we synthesized tree-like nanowire  heterostructures, consisting of silicon trunks and titanium oxide branches. Visually, arrays of these nanostructures very much resemble an artificial forest.

“In natural photosynthesis, the energy of absorbed sunlight produces energized charge-carriers that execute chemical reactions in separate regions of the chloroplast,” Yang says. “We’ve integrated our nanowire nanoscale heterostructure into a functional system that mimics the integration in chloroplasts and provides a conceptual blueprint for better solar-to-fuel conversion efficiencies in the future.”

When sunlight is absorbed by pigment molecules in a chloroplast, an energized electron is generated that moves from molecule to molecule through a transport chain until ultimately it drives the conversion of carbon dioxide into carbohydrate sugars. This electron transport chain is called a “Z-scheme” because the pattern of movement resembles the letter Z on its side.

Yang and his colleagues also use a Z-scheme in their system, but they deploy two Earth-abundant and stable semiconductors — silicon and titanium oxide — loaded with co-catalysts and with an ohmic (low-resistance) contact inserted between them. Silicon was used for the hydrogen-generating photocathode and titanium oxide for the oxygen-generating photoanode.

The tree-like architecture was used to maximize the system’s performance. Like trees in a real forest, the dense arrays of artificial nanowire trees suppress sunlight reflection and provide more surface area for fuel-producing reactions.

Under simulated sunlight, this integrated nanowire-based artificial photosynthesis system achieved a 0.12-percent solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency. Although comparable to some natural photosynthetic conversion efficiencies, this rate will have to be substantially improved for commercial use.

This research was supported by the DOE Office of Science.