Fuel from the sun: insight into electrode performance

Soft x-ray studies of hematite electrodes—potentially key components in producing fuel from sunlight—revealed the material’s electronic band positions under realistic operating conditions.

In photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen is used to produce molecules—such as carbohydrates and sugars—that store energy in chemical bonds. Such compounds constitute the original feedstocks for subsequent forms of fuel consumed by society.

Photoelectrochemical (PEC) water splitting is a form of “artificial” photosynthesis that uses semiconductor material, rather than organic plant material, to facilitate water splitting. Electrodes made of semiconductor material are immersed in an electrolyte, with sunlight driving the water-splitting process. The performance of such PEC devices is largely determined at the interface between the photoanode (the electrode at which light gets absorbed) and the electrolyte.

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Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt