Exploring How Photoelectrochemical Devices Build on the Promise of Solar Energy

Energy, Materials Studio

photoelectrochemical devices
Better semiconductor materials combined with specialty chemicals could improve the design of photoelectrochemical devices, meaning perhaps the nation’s solar energy dreams might come true.
Image source: Flickr user EnecoMedia

These days, crude oil can be purchased at low prices, so why discuss solar energy? Part of the issue is that the oil market is very volatile and today’s “cheapest” prices could become tomorrow’s “most expensive” prices.1 Additionally, companies would do well to invest in solar energy because it is more often used to generate electricity than anything else. In fact, oil use accounts for only one percent of U.S. electricity generation and so continued discussion and investment in solar energy is essential for a sustainable society.2 Research efforts should continue to determine how best to transform sunlight into usable chemical fuels.

One major innovation toward this end is photoelectrochemical (PEC) devices—technology meant to mimic artificial photosynthesis.3 Artificial photosynthesis occurs when sunlight, water and carbon dioxide are transformed into carbohydrates and oxygen, as occurs during the natural process. During the transformation of sun energy into “solar fuels,” energy is stored in chemical bonds that can be later harvested as energy, an alternative even to fossil fuels.

Improvements in Photoelectrochemical Devices with Specialty Chemicals?

Viable and inexpensive photoelectrochemical devices will ultimately require the use of novel semiconductor materials combined with specialty chemicals that acquire novel atomic properties. These properties together could improve the characteristics of solar fuel to improve light absorption, charge separation and transport and finally, the conversion of energy within the devices. Researchers must then consider how specialty chemicals could play a part in improving the performance and properties of semiconductors and PEC devices in general.

Light Absorption: In PEC devices, a photoelectrochemical cell specifically, there are two electrodes and a membrane that separate the two half-cell reactions that occur in photosynthesis. One of these electrodes is a semiconductor that absorbs solar photons and generates a photopotential from the charge separation. Already, companies are using specialty chemicals in order to improve semiconductor deposition and stripping in existing photoelectrochemical devices.4; However, companies specifically focused on the design of PEC devices can consider how the use of specific specialty companies can increase the photopotential of PEC devices in order to maximize the amount of energy harvested. Alternatively, other specialty chemicals might be used to increase the portion of the solar spectrum harvested in order to maximize photoelectric potentials.

Material Improvements: Currently, many semiconductors are made by combining thin layers of stable oxides to protect the cells; however, this creates an “integrated photovoltaic-electrolysis cell,” which is actually very costly to scale up and has limited research in this field. Using specialty chemicals for protecting the unstable semiconductor electrode could solve a significant challenge by presenting a method for inexpensively improving the solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency of many PEC devices.

In general, there are current limitations in the materials used for photoelectrochemical technologies. By using specialty chemicals to improve light absorption or the protection of electrodes, scientists may be able to render the technology inexpensive and thus expand their potential usage. But in order to do this, those researchers should have the support of technology that enables them to better design the specialty chemicals that can improve these PEC devices. BIOVIA Materials Studio enables researchers to more quickly discover those substances and materials that can improve performance and the cost profiles for developing semiconductors. At the same time, password-protected databases allow experts to share knowledge and ideas for improving materials as they are formulated, which further improves efficiency. To consider how BIOVIA Materials Studio can improve the way research is done in your company, please contact us today to learn more.

  1. “This is what drove the oil market’s wild February gyrations,” February 29, 2016, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-what-drove-the-oil-markets-wild-february-gyrations-2016-02-29
  2. “Now is the time to invest in solar, because people are stupid,” January 29, 2015, http://grist.org/business-technology/now-is-the-time-to-invest-in-solar-because-people-are-stupid/
  3. “Semiconducting materials for photoelectrochemical energy conversion,” January 20, 2016, http://www.nature.com/articles/natrevmats201510
  4. “Specialty Chemicals–Electronics,” http://www.airproducts.com/products/Chemicals/Specialty-Chemicals-Electronics.aspx

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