In five years a team of engineers at Stanford University plans to have developed a complete artificial photosynthesis systems that uses solar cells to convert greenhouse gases into fuel.
The Stanford team, led by materials scientist Paul McIntyre, in 2011 solved one of the main issues in the process -- solar cell corrosion under water. They have coated the electrodes in the cells with a protective layer of transparent titanium dioxide.
At a later stage, the researchers have shown how to boost the power of the corrosion-resistant solar cells, thus setting a record for solar output under water. They did that by adding a layer of charged silicon between the titanium oxide and the basic silicon cell to increase the voltage. These three layers are then coated with iridium, which serves as the catalyst that allows carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) molecules to meet.
The project’s goal is to funnel greenhouse gases from smokestacks or the atmosphere into giant, transparent chemical tanks. Solar cells inside these tanks would turn the gases and water into what is also known as "solar fuels."
Beyond this specific application, the Stanford engineers have provided design principles to help the photovoltaic (PV) industry and scientific community build energy-efficient, corrosion-protected solar cells for other purposes.
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