Producing hydrogen with sunlight: Collecting light with artificial moth eyes

How the 'moth eye solar cell' functions: with the help of sunlight water molecules are split into oxygen and hydrogen. Credit: Image courtesy of Empa

How the'moth eye solar cell' functions: with the help of sunlight water molecules are split into oxygen and hydrogen. Credit: Image courtesy of Empa

Empa researchers have developed such a photoelectrochemical cell, recreating a moth’s eye to drastically increase its light collecting efficiency.

All over the world researchers are investigating solar cells which imitate plant photosynthesis, using sunlight and water to create synthetic fuels such as hydrogen. Empa researchers have developed such a photoelectrochemical cell, recreating a moth’s eye to drastically increase its light collecting efficiency. The cell is made of cheap raw materials – iron and tungsten oxide.

Rust – iron oxide – could revolutionise solar cell technology. This usually unwanted substance can be used to make photoelectrodes which split water and generate hydrogen.  Sunlight is thereby directly converted into valuable fuel rather than first being used to generate electricity. Unfortunately, as a raw material iron oxide has its limitations. Although it is unbelievably cheap and absorbs light in exactly the wavelength region where the sun emits the most energy, it conducts electricity very poorly and must therefore be used in the form of an extremely thin film in order for the water splitting technique to work. The disadvantage of this is that these thin-films absorb too little of the sunlight shining on the cell.

Microspheres to collect the sunlight

Empa researchers Florent Boudoire and Artur Braun have now succeeded in solving this problem. A special microstructure on the photoelectrode surface literally gathers in sunlight and does not let it out again. The basis for this innovative structure are tiny particles of tungsten oxide which, because of their saturated yellow colour, can also be used for photoelectrodes. The yellow microspheres are applied to an electrode and then covered with an extremely thin nanoscale layer of iron oxide. When external light falls on the particle it is internally reflected back and forth, till finally all the light is absorbed. All the entire energy in the beam is now available to use for splitting the water molecules.

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