Submersible solar cell innovation promises cleaner renewable fuel

February 19, 2016 // By Paul Buckley
Researchers from Tyndall National Institute, Cork, and Stanford University have developed a solar cell design that can be submerged in water to help produce clean, renewable fuel from 'water-splitting' chemical reactions.

In a paper published in Nature Materials, the researchers showed how a new design of submerged, water-resistant solar cell produces a record-breaking voltage, suggesting that it will be possible for the electricity needed to split water molecules into fuel components to be generated solely from sunlight.

The 'artificial photosynthesis' technology can be used to split water into its constituent elements of pure oxygen and hydrogen, where the hydrogen represents a clean fuel that produces only water when it is burned. The technology can also be used to produce methane (natural gas) and methanol from reactions involving hydrogen and carbon dioxide. With sunlight as a sole source of energy, water-splitting reactors could provide a renewable source of hydrogen, methane and methanol, and potentially funnel CO2 into reactors for transformation into fuel instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, reducing its harmful effects on the global climate.

The RENEW project (Research into Emerging Nanostructured Electrodes for the Splitting of Water) has brought scientists from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the USA together to tackle the challenge of designing solar cells that do not corrode under water and produce enough voltage to split water molecules without an outside source of electricity. A breakthrough in the corrosion issue was achieved by Professor Paul McIntyre and colleagues at Stanford University in 2011, who added a thin layer of titanium dioxide to the anode part of the solar cell to protect its surface from water corrosion but this presented a problem.  The thicker the protective layer, the less voltage generated by the silicon-based cell beneath.  Dr Paul Hurley of Tyndall National Institute in Cork suggested an innovation that might boost the voltage, fabricated a prototype and sent it to Stanford for testing, where the voltage-producing capacities of the new solar anode design exceeded all expectations.

“The holy grail of water-splitting using solar cells is that you put it into water, and just use solar energy to split the water molecules. The aim is to get hydrogen
reliably without applying any voltage. However, when the protective titanium dioxide layer was added, it resulted in a reduction in the light induced voltage. At Tyndall, we suggested adding a new layer of silicon doped with an excess positive charge between the original silicon cell and the protective layer. The idea was to create just a little more photovoltage than achieved with one type of silicon, but when we sent it to Stanford for testing, they found it was much better, and in fact it broke the record for the voltage produced by this type of anode,” explained Dr Paul Hurley, one of the lead researchers at Tyndall National Institute.