How To Recycle Carbon Dioxide

An international team of scientists led by Liang-shi Li at Indiana University (IU) has achieved a new milestone in the quest to recycle carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere into carbon-neutral fuels and others materials.


The chemists have engineered a molecule that uses light or electricity to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide — a carbon-neutral fuel source — more efficiently than any other method of “carbon reduction.”

molecular leaf

If you can create an efficient enough molecule for this reaction, it will produce energy that is free and storable in the form of fuels,” said Li, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences‘ Department of Chemistry. “This study is a major leap in that direction.”

Burning fuel — such as carbon monoxide — produces carbon dioxide and releases energy. Turning carbon dioxide back into fuel requires at least the same amount of energy. A major goal among scientists has been decreasing the excess energy needed.

This is exactly what Li’s molecule achieves: requiring the least amount of energy reported thus far to drive the formation of carbon monoxide. The molecule — a nanographene-rhenium complex connected via an organic compound known as bipyridine — triggers a highly efficient reaction that converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. The ability to efficiently and exclusively create carbon monoxide is significant due to the molecule’s versatility.

Carbon monoxide is an important raw material in a lot of industrial processes,” Li said. “It’s also a way to store energy as a carbon-neutral fuel since you’re not putting any more carbon back into the atmosphere than you already removed. You’re simply re-releasing the solar power you used to make it.

The secret to the molecule’s efficiency is nanographene — a nanometer-scale piece of graphite, a common form of carbon (i.e. the black “lead” in pencils) — because the material’s dark color absorbs a large amount of sunlight.

Li said that bipyridine-metal complexes have long been studied to reduce carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with sunlight. But these molecules can use only a tiny sliver of the light in sunlight, primarily in the ultraviolet range, which is invisible to the naked eye. In contrast, the molecule developed at IU takes advantage of the light-absorbing power of nanographene to create a reaction that uses sunlight in the wavelength up to 600 nanometers — a large portion of the visible light spectrum.

Essentially, Li said, the molecule acts as a two-part system: a nanographeneenergy collector” that absorbs energy from sunlight and an atomic rheniumengine” that produces carbon monoxide. The energy collector drives a flow of electrons to the rhenium atom, which repeatedly binds and converts the normally stable carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

The idea to link nanographene to the metal arose from Li’s earlier efforts to create a more efficient solar cell with the carbon-based material. “We asked ourselves: Could we cut out the middle man — solar cells — and use the light-absorbing quality of nanographene alone to drive the reaction?” he said.

Next, Li plans to make the molecule more powerful, including making it last longer and survive in a non-liquid form, since solid catalysts are easier to use in the real world.

The process is reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


Solar Cells : How To Boost Efficiency Up To 30%

Researchers from the University of Houston have reported the first explanation for how a class of materials changes during production to more efficiently absorb light, a critical step toward the large-scale manufacture of better and less-expensive solar panels. The work, published this month as the cover story for Nanoscale, offers a mechanism study of how a perovskite thin film changes its microscopic structure upon gentle heating, said Yan Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and lead author on the paper. This information is crucial for designing a manufacturing process that can consistently produce high-efficiency solar panels.

Perovskite cheap

Last year Yao and other researchers identified the crystal structure of the non-stoichiometric intermediate phase as the key element for high-efficiency perovskite solar cells. But what happened during the later thermal annealing step remained unclear. The work is fundamental science, Yao said, but critical for processing more efficient solar cells.

Otherwise, it’s like a black box,” he said. “We know certain processing conditions are important, but we don’t know why.”

The work also yielded a surprise: the materials showed a peak efficiency – the rate at which the material converted light to electricity – before the intermediate phase transformation was complete, suggesting a new way to produce the films to ensure maximum efficiency. Yao said researchers would have expected the highest efficiency to come after the material had been converted to 100 percent perovskite film. Instead, they discovered the best-performing solar devices were those for which conversion was stopped at 18 percent of the intermediate phase, before full conversion.

We found that the phase composition and morphology of solvent engineered perovskite films are strongly dependent on the processing conditions and can significantly influence photovoltaic performance,” the researchers wrote. “The strong dependence on processing conditions is attributed to the molecular exchange kinetics between organic halide molecules and DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) coordinated in the intermediate phase.

Perovskite compounds commonly are comprised of a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin halide-based material and have been pursued as potential materials for solar cells for several years. Yao said their advantages include the fact that the materials can work as very thin films – about 300 nanometers, compared with between 200 and 300 micrometers for silicon wafers, the most commonly used material for solar cells. Perovskite solar cells also can be produced by solution processing at temperatures below 150 degrees Centigrade (about 300 degrees Fahrenheit) making them relatively inexpensive to produce.

At their best, perovskite solar cells have an efficiency rate of about 22 percent, slightly lower than that of silicon (25 percent). But the cost of silicon solar cells is also dropping dramatically, and perovskite cells are unstable in air, quickly losing efficiency. They also usually contain lead, a toxin.

Still, Yao said, the materials hold great promise for the solar industry, even if they are unlikely to replace silicon entirely. Instead, he said, they could be used in conjunction with silicon, boosting efficiency to 30 percent or so.


Hydrogen Fuel Stations

A Stanford University research lab has developed new technologies to tackle two of the world’s biggest energy challenges – clean fuel for transportation and grid-scale energy storageHydrogen fuel has long been touted as a clean alternative to gasoline. Automakers began offering hydrogen-powered cars to American consumers last year, but only a handful have sold, mainly because hydrogen refueling stations are few and far between.

silicone nanoconesStanford engineers created arrays of silicon nanocones to trap sunlight and improve the performance of solar cells made of bismuth vanadate

Millions of cars could be powered by clean hydrogen fuel if it were cheap and widely available,” said Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, which emit carbon dioxide, hydrogen cars themselves are emissions free. Making hydrogen fuel, however, is not emission free: Today, making most hydrogen fuel involves natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

To address the problem, Cui and his colleagues have focused on photovoltaic water splitting. This emerging technology consists of a solar-powered electrode immersed in water. When sunlight hits the electrode, it generates an electric current that splits the water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. Finding an affordable way to produce clean hydrogen from water has been a challenge. Conventional solar electrodes made of silicon quickly corrode when exposed to oxygen, a key byproduct of water splitting. Several research teams have reduced corrosion by coating the silicon with iridium and other precious metals.
The researchers described their findings in two studies published this month in the journals Science Advances and Nature Communications. 

Writing in the June 17 edition of Sciences Advances, Cui and his colleagues presented a new approach using bismuth vanadate, an inexpensive compound that absorbs sunlight and generates modest amounts of electricity.

Bismuth vanadate has been widely regarded as a promising material for photoelectrochemical water splitting, in part because of its low cost and high stability against corrosion,” said Cui, who is also an associate professor of photon science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “However, the performance of this material remains well below its theoretical solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency.”

Bismuth vanadate absorbs light but is a poor conductor of electricity. To carry a current, a solar cell made of bismuth vanadate must be sliced very thin, 200 nanometers or less, making it virtually transparent. As a result, visible light that could be used to generate electricity simply passes through the cell.

To capture sunlight before it escapes, Cui’s team turned to nanotechnology. The researchers created microscopic arrays containing thousands of silicon nanocones, each about 600 nanometers tall.

Nanocone structures have shown a promising light-trapping capability over a broad range of wavelengths,” Cui explained. “Each cone is optimally shaped to capture sunlight that would otherwise pass through the thin solar cell.”

In the experiment, Cui and his colleagues deposited the nanocone arrays on a thin film of bismuth vanadate. Both layers were then placed on a solar cell made of perovskite, another promising photovoltaic material.

When submerged, the three-layer tandem device immediately began splitting water at a solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 6.2 percent, already matching the theoretical maximum rate for a bismuth vanadate cell.


Perovskite Solar Cells Surpass 20% Efficiency

Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are pushing the limits of perovskite solar cell performance by exploring the best way to grow these crystals.
Michael Graetzel and his team found that, by briefly reducing the pressure while fabricating perovskite crystals, they were able to achieve the highest performance ever measured for larger-size perovskite solar cells, reaching over 20% efficiency and matching the performance of conventional thin-film solar cells of similar sizes. This is promising news for perovskite technology that is already low cost and under industrial development. However, high performance in pervoskites does not necessarily herald the doom of silicon-based solar technology. Safety issues still need to be addressed regarding the lead content of current perovskite solar-cell prototypes in addition to determining the stability of actual devices.

peroskite solar cell

Layering perovskites on top of silicon to make hybrid solar panels may actually boost the silicon solar-cell industry. Efficiency could exceed 30%, with the theoretical limit being around 44%. The improved performance would come from harnessing more solar energy: the higher energy light would be absorbed by the perovskite top layer, while lower energy sunlight passing through the perovskite would be absorbed by the silicon layer. Graetzel is known for his transparent dye-sensitized solar cells. It turns out that the first perovskite solar cells were dye-sensitized cells where the dye was replaced by small perovskite particles. His lab’s latest perovskite prototype, roughly the size of an SD card, looks like a piece of glass that is darkened on one side by a thin film of perovskite. Unlike the transparent dye-sensitized cells, the perovskite solar cell is opaque.

The results are published in Science.


How To Scavenge Simultaneously Solar And Wind Energy

To realize the sustainable energy supply in a smart city, it is essential to maximize energy scavenging from the city environments for achieving the self-powered functions of some intelligent devices and sensors.

solar and wind powered houseAlthough the solar energy can be well harvested by using existing technologies, the large amounts of wasted wind energy in the city cannot be eectively utilized since conventional wind turbine generators can only be installed in remote areas due to their large volumes and safety issues.
Here, the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences rationally design a hybridized nanogenerator, including a solar cell (SC) and a triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG), that can individually/simultaneously scavenge solar and wind energies, which can be extensively installed on the roofs of the city buildings. Under the same device area of about 120 mm × 22 mm, the SC can deliver a largest outputpower of about 8 mW, while the output power of the TENG can be up to 26 mW. Impedance matching between the SC and TENG has been achieved by using a transformer to decrease the impedance of the TENG. The hybridized nanogenerator has a larger output current and a better charging performance than that of the individual SC or TENG.
This research presents a feasible approach to maximize solar and wind energies scavenging from the city environments with the aim to realize some self-powered functions in smart city.


Solar Cell Converts 34,5% Of The Sunlight To Electricity

A new solar cell configuration developed by engineers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, has pushed sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency to 34.5% – establishing a new world record for unfocused sunlight and nudging closer to the theoretical limits for such a device. The record was set by Dr Mark Keevers and Professor Martin Green, Senior Research Fellow and Director, respectively, of UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, using a 28-cm2 four-junction mini-module – embedded in a prism – that extracts the maximum energy from sunlight. It does this by splitting the incoming rays into four bands, using a hybrid four-junction receiver to squeeze even more electricity from each beam of sunlight. The new UNSW result, confirmed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is almost 44% better than the previous record – made by Alta Devices of the USA, which reached 24% efficiency, but over a larger surface area of 800-cm2.


This encouraging result shows that there are still advances to come in photovoltaics research to make solar cells even more efficient,” said Keevers. “Extracting more energy from every beam of sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electricity generated by solar cells as it lowers the investment needed, and delivering payback faster.”

The result was obtained by the same UNSW team that set a world record in 2014, achieving an electricity conversion rate of over 40% by using mirrors to concentrate the light – a technique known as CPV (concentrator photovoltaics) – and then similarly splitting out various wavelengths. The new result, however, was achieved using normal sunlight with no concentrators.


Nanotechnology Boosts Solar Panel Efficiency

Solar power, which is power drawn from the sun, is a familiar concept for most Americans. You set out some thick, flat arrays the color of blueberries in your lawn or on your roof, and they use the photovoltaic effect to generate a current. For many people, this means they can expect to spend less on energy from nonrenewable sources like oil and gas, with the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions in the long run. The benefits for developing nations are even greater. Take Africa, for example. As a continent, it is extremely sunny and flat so it seems like a natural place to deploy solar panels. The main barriers preventing this rollout are the cost of cell production and limitations on cell efficiency.

solar farm

Fortunately, research costs for solar energy are comparatively lower than other fields. This has led to scientists coming up with a number of inventive ways to improve solar cells through the use of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology refers to manmade matter measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). For reference, a sheet of paper is 100,000 nm, while a strand of hair is 80,000 nm. Due to their size and extreme variety, nanotechnology allows scientists to create microscopic components and enhance the performance of existing technologies. For example, electroplating solar panels with nanometers-thin layers of silver helps the system absorb heat and makes it resistant to corrosion. Hinging on the size and versatility of nanotechnology, scientists have discovered several different ways to leverage it to improve solar cells.

The amount of energy solar cell panels can produce is limited in part by the sunlight it collects. If the array can collect more sunlight while still taking up the same amount of space, the energy produced per panel will increase. This would have a profound effect on arrays in places like Africa, where it is extremely sunny. The increase in surface area would mean a greater amount of energy collected and output over the lifetime of the cell. Using nanotechnology, scientists have developed a way to do just this.

The actual product is called a dye-sensitive solar cell. It uses a layer of porous nanoparticles coated in dye to increase the surface area on the solar cell on a microscopic level. This has the added benefit of making the cell more flexible, and increasing its ability to work in extreme conditions. If that seems difficult to imagine, think about it this way: Picture a long strip of candy dots. The paper is the solar array while the candy is the layer of nanoparticles. The candy increases the surface area of the paper without adding much bulk. Thus, the paper remains supple. Some of the greatest advances in flexible solar cells have been made by Alberta scientist Jillian Buriak. Using a spray gun and laminators, Buriak and her team developed a way to spray nanoparticles onto the plastic. This sheet is then run through the laminator, which spreads out the layer even further. The result is an extremely thin solar cell with innumerable practical applications.

Using nanotechnology, scientists have discovered that they can create cells that absorb 90 percent of the sunlight that hits it. This allows for more efficient concentrating solar power (CSP) plants. Unlike traditional solar arrays, CSP plants generate power by focusing the sun, generally through mirrors, on molten salt. The heated salt is used to create steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. One limitation of these plants is that the materials used to collect the sunlight degrade after about a year, causing a dip in production while they are repaired.

This new technology can withstand extreme heat and last for many years outdoors, despite exposure to the elements.


How To Harvest Heat In The Dark To Produce Electricity

Physicists have discovered radical new properties in a nanomaterial, opening new possibilities for highly efficient thermophotovoltaic cells that could one day harvest heat in the dark and turn it into electricity. The research team from the Australian National University (ANU/ARC Centre of Excellence CUDOS) and the University of California Berkeley demonstrated a new artificial material, or metamaterial, that glows in an unusual way when heated.

The findings could drive a revolution in the development of cells which convert radiated heat into electricity, known as thermophotovoltaic cells. “Thermophotovoltaic cells have the potential to be much more efficient than solar cells,” said Dr Sergey Kruk from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.


Our metamaterial overcomes several obstacles and could help to unlock the potential of thermophotovoltaic cells.”

Thermophotovoltaic cells have been predicted to be more than twice as efficient as conventional solar cells. They do not need direct sunlight to generate electricity, and instead can harvest heat from their surroundings in the form of infrared radiation. They can also be combined with a burner to produce on-demand power or can recycle heat radiated by hot engines. The team’s metamaterial, made of tiny nanoscopic structures of gold and magnesium fluoride, radiates heat in specific directions. The geometry of the metamaterial can also be tweaked to give off radiation in specific spectral range, in contrast to standard materials that emit their heat in all directions as a broad range of infrared wavelengths. This makes the new material ideal for use as an emitter paired with a thermophotovoltaic cell.

The project started when Dr Kruk predicted the new metamaterial would have these surprising properties. The ANU team then worked with scientists at the University of California Berkeley, who have unique expertise in manufacturing such materials.

To fabricate this material the Berkeley team were operating at the cutting edge of technological possibilities,” Dr Kruk said. “The size of an individual building block of the metamaterial is so small that we could fit more than 12,000 of them on the cross-section of a human hair.

The research is published in Nature Communications.


How To Increase Photovoltaic Efficiency

Researchers from the The Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have built tiny “match-headwires that act as built-in light concentrators, enhancing solar cell efficiency.

Crystal growth on a nano/microscale level results in the formation of “match-head”-like, three-dimensional structures that enhance light absorption and photovoltaic efficiency. Match-head semiconductor nanowires focus incident light for greater overall efficiency. The match heads are naturally formed during the wire-growth process, which can be applied to various materials and structures for photonic and optoelectronic devices. This is the first large structure grown on a nanowire tip and it creates a completely new architecture for harnessing energy.

match-head(Left) Silicon wires with match heads and (right) light absorption profile of a single match-head wire at 587 nm absorption

Enhanced light absorption and efficient, photogenerated carrier collection are essential characteristics of highly efficient solar cells. Nanowires with embedded radial junctions are promising building blocks for highly efficient photovoltaics because of their ability to achieve these two characteristics. The new technology in this highlight provides a novel method for enhancing optical absorption and photovoltaic efficiency with crystal growth. Controlled silicon crystal growth on the tops of silicon wires creates a match-head structure. The match head acts as a light concentrator. Light absorptance was increased by 36% and photovoltaic efficiency was increased by 20%. Because the match-head crystal is naturally grown and minimizes surface energy, this technique is applicable for a wide range of materials and device architectures to boost performance. The ability to control the shape of the nanostructure is essential for manufacturing next-generation semiconductor devices, such as photodetectors and light emitters.


Stabilized Perovskite Solar Cells Clear the Way To The Market

UCLA professor Yang Yang, member of the California NanoSystems Institute, is a world-renowned innovator of solar cell technology whose team in recent years has developed next-generation solar cells constructed of perovskite, which has remarkable efficiency converting sunlight to electricity.

Despite this success, the delicate nature of perovskite — a very cheap, very light, flexible, organic-inorganic hybrid material — stalled further development toward its commercialized use. When exposed to air, perovskite cells broke down and disintegrated within a few hours to few days. The cells deteriorated even faster when also exposed to moisture, mainly due to the hydroscopic nature of the perovskite.

Now Yang’s team has conquered the primary difficulty of perovskite by protecting it between two layers of metal oxide. This is a significant advance toward stabilizing perovskite solar cells. Their new cell construction extends the cell’s effective life in air by more than 10 times, with only a marginal loss of efficiency converting sunlight to electricity.

perovskite solar panel

There has been much optimism about perovskite solar cell technology,” Meng said. In less than two years, the Yang team has advanced perovskite solar cell efficiency from less than 1 percent to close to 20 percent. “But its short lifespan was a limiting factor we have been trying to improve on since developing perovskite cells with high efficiency.”

The study was published online in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Researchers Jingbi You and Lei Meng from the Yang Lab were the lead authors on the paper.


Solar Fuel Cell For Hydrogen Electric Car

Why not a solar cell that that produces fuel rather than electricity? Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) (Netherlands) and FOM Foundation today present a very promising prototype of this in the journal Nature Communications. The material gallium phosphide enables their solar cell to produce the clean fuel hydrogen gas from liquid water. Processing the gallium phosphide in the form of very small nanowires is novel and helps to boost the yield by a factor of ten. And does so using ten thousand times less precious material.

hydrogen electric car
The electricity produced by a solar cell can be used to set off chemical reactions. If this generates a fuel, then one speaks of solar fuels – a hugely promising replacement for polluting fuels. One of the possibilities is to split liquid water using the electricity that is generated (electrolysis). Among oxygen, this produces hydrogen gas that can be used as a clean fuel in the chemical industry or combusted in fuel cells – in cars for example – to drive engines.

To connect an existing silicon solar cell to a battery that splits the water may well be an efficient solution now but it is a very expensive one. Many researchers are therefore targeting their search at a semiconductor material that is able to both convert sunlight into an electrical charge and split the water, all in one; a kind of ‘solar fuel cell’. Researchers at TU/e and FOM see their dream candidate in gallium phosphide (GaP), a compound of gallium and phosphide that also serves as the basis for specific colored leds.

has good electrical properties but the drawback that it cannot easily absorb light when it is a large flat surface as used in GaP solar cells. The researchers have overcome this problem by making a grid of very small GaP nanowires, measuring five hundred nanometers (a millionth of a millimeter) long and ninety nanometers thick. This immediately boosted the yield of hydrogen by a factor of ten to 2.9 percent. A record for GaP cells, even though this is still some way off the fifteen percent achieved by silicon cells coupled to a battery.

According to research leader and TU/e professor Erik Bakkers, it’s not simply about the yield – where there is still a lot of scope for improvement he points out: “For the nanowires we needed ten thousand less precious GaP material than in cells with a flat surface. That makes these kinds of cells potentially a great deal cheaper,” Bakkers says. “In addition, GaP is also able to extract oxygen from the water – so you then actually have a fuel cell in which you can temporarily store your solar energy. In short, for a solar fuels future we cannot ignore gallium phosphide any longer.”


How To Produce Massively And Easily Solar Panels

Nanoscale materials feature extraordinary, billionth-of-a-meter qualities that transform everything from energy generation to data storage. But while a nanostructured solar cell may be fantastically efficient, that precision is notoriously difficult to achieve on industrial scales. The solution may be self-assembly, or training molecules to stitch themselves together into high-performing configurations.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a laser-based technique to execute nanoscale self-assembly with unprecedented ease and efficiency.

solarPanelWe design materials that build themselves,” said Kevin Yager, a scientist at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). “Under the right conditions, molecules will naturally snap into a perfect configuration. The challenge is giving these nanomaterials the kick they need: the hotter they are, the faster they move around and settle into the desired formation. We used lasers to crank up the heat.”