Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have harnessed the power of the sun to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants.
This new work, described in a study published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, is the first to successfully demonstrate the approach of going from carbon dioxide directly to target products, namely ethanol and ethylene, at energy conversion efficiencies rivaling natural counterparts.
The researchers did this by optimizing each component of a photovoltaic-electrochemical system to reduce voltage loss, and creating new materials when existing ones did not suffice. The new system could pair up with power plants to capture greenhouse gases at the source
“This is an exciting development,” said study principal investigator Joel Ager, a Berkeley Lab scientist with joint appointments in the Materials Sciences and the Chemical Sciences divisions. “As rising atmospheric CO2 levels change Earth’s climate, the need to develop sustainable sources of power has become increasingly urgent. Our work here shows that we have a plausible path to making fuels directly from sunlight.”
Because carbon dioxide is a stubbornly stable molecule, breaking it up typically involves a significant input of energy.
“Reducing CO2 to a hydrocarbon end product like ethanol or ethylene can take up to 5 volts, start to finish,” said study lead author Gurudayal, postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab. “Our system reduced that by half while maintaining the selectivity of products.”
That sun-to-fuel path is among the key goals of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis(JCAP), an Obama-era DOE Energy Innovation Hub established to advance solar fuel research. The study was conducted at JCAP’s Berkeley Lab campus.
“By working through each step so carefully, these researchers demonstrated a level of performance and efficiency that people did not think was possible at this point,” said Berkeley Lab chemist Frances Houle, JCAP deputy director for Science and Research Integration, who was not part of the study. “This is a big step forward in the design of devices for efficient CO2 reduction and testing of new materials, and it provides a clear framework for the future advancement of fully integrated solar-driven CO2-reduction devices.”
Other co-authors on the study include James Bullock, a Berkeley Lab postdoctoral researcher in materials sciences, who was instrumental in engineering the system’s photovoltaic and electrolysis cell pairing. Bullock works in the lab of study co-author Ali Javey, Berkeley Lab senior faculty scientist and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences.
This work is supported by the DOE Office of Science.
Illustration: Schematic of a solar-powered electrolysis cell which converts carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon and oxygenate products with an efficiency far higher than natural photosynthesis. Power-matching electronics allow the system to operate over a range of sun conditions. (Credit: Clarissa Towle/Berkeley Lab)