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Fuels Produced Regeneratively Through Light-Driven Water Splitting: Clarification of the Elemental Processes Involved and Prospects for Implementation in Technological Concepts


Wednesday, January 28, 2015


The Senate of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has announced in 2011 the establishment of a new Priority Programme entitled “Fuels Produced Regeneratively Through Light-Driven Water Splitting: Clarification of the Elemental Processes Involved and Prospects for Implementation in Technological Concepts” (SPP 1613). The programme is scheduled to run for six years; the present call invites proposals for the second three-year funding period.

The objective is to investigate artificial photosynthesis based on solid-state inorganic materials from a fundamental scientific perspective as well as the aspects of material science required for its technological implementation. It is expected to be able to successfully produce storable fuels in the form of H2 with a high energy content using solar light, resulting in a renewable primary energy carrier that would be sustainable and secure. The artificial systems that have been identified thus far are limited with respect to conversion efficiency and lifetime, and are furthermore too expensive for technological implementation. New basic approaches are thus required that merge scientific innovation with advanced engineering strategies. Therefore, only systems with the potential of providing energy conversion efficiencies approaching ten percent will be considered.

Efficient artificial photosynthesis can only be realised by coupling a number of successive elementary processes, including broad-band light absorption, optimised charge carrier generation and separation as well as an efficient electrocatalytic production of H2 and O2 from H2O in separated compartments. For technological implementation, complex device structures must be manufactured, preferably using materials that are economical, abundant and non-hazardous. In the face of the diversity of possible solutions this programme concentrates on the combination of photovoltaic converters and electrocatalysts, both of which are highly efficient and stable, a strategy which may lead to viable solutions in the near future. Semiconductors will be used for light absorption, since they provide the best results for charge carrier generation. 

As potential means of generating the photovoltage needed for water-splitting, wide band gap compound semiconductors, low band gap tandem structures, and doped oxides with visible light absorption and efficient charge carrier transport properties will be investigated. Nano-sized or molecularly deduced (biomimetic) particles will be examined for use as electrocatalysts in subsequent multi-electron transfer. The key factors for a promising system include loss-minimised charge transfer from the photovoltaic converter to the catalyst, a highly efficient and selective catalyst, and the stability of the complete system in an aqueous solution.

The requirements cannot be met without a detailed analysis of the elementary processes involved as well as the materials and devices used in successful implementation. The funded projects are to investigate selected promising model systems in order to achieve an enhanced understanding of the conditions needed for efficient light induced water-splitting. This will be done in close cooperation among subgroups using the most recent experimental characterisation techniques in combination with advanced theoretical simulation approaches. Furthermore, it is expected that singular components (as e.g. absorbers and electrocatalysts) will be combined to systems and investigated in their cooperative interactions.

To foster collaboration between the various research groups participating in the programme, proposals should preferably involve consortia of two to three principal investigators of complementary expertise concentrating on a specific subject. Furthermore, the consortia will develop and cultivate close mutual collaboration between each other in order to disseminate the expertise gained in the process of their experimental or theoretical work programmes. Knowledge exchange and potential collaboration will be outlined already in each research proposal. Because of the evident need for concentration and specialisation within this Priority Programme, each research group shall be assigned to one of the research areas listed below. Proposals that focus on more than one of these points are highly welcome. When selecting the materials, environmental compatibility, the abundance and cost of the elements employed as well as resistance to photocorrosion must be taken into account or may be subject of investigation.

Research areas:

•Photoelectrochemical systems

•Electrocatalytic systems

•Model systems

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