Molecular ‘leaf’ harvests sunlight without solar cells

Molecular ‘leaf’ harvests sunlight without solar cells

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

The team, led by Liang-shi Li at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN) with researchers from Nanchang University and the University of Science and Technology of China, used a nanographene-rhenium complex connected via an organic compound known as bipyridine to trigger a highly efficient reaction that converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

“If you can create an efficient enough molecule for this reaction, it will produce energy that is free and storable in the form of fuels,” said Li, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.

“This study is a major leap in that direction. The ability to efficiently and exclusively create carbon monoxide is significant due to the molecule’s versatility. This is  also a way to store energy as a carbon-neutral fuel since you’re not putting any more carbon back into the atmosphere than you already removed. You’re simply re-releasing the solar power you used to make it.”

The bipyridine-metal complexes have long been studied to reduce carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with sunlight but these molecules can use only a tiny sliver of the light in sunlight, primarily in the ultraviolet range, which is invisible to the naked eye. In contrast, the molecule developed at IU takes advantage of the light-absorption nanographene to create a reaction that uses sunlight in the wavelength up to 600 nm, a larger portion of the visible light spectrum.

The molecule acts as a two-part system: a nanographene “energy collector” that absorbs energy from sunlight and an atomic rhenium “engine” that produces carbon monoxide. The energy collector drives a flow of electrons to the rhenium atom, which repeatedly binds and converts the normally stable carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. 

According to Li, the idea to link nanographene to the metal arose from earlier efforts to create a more efficient solar cell with the carbon-based material. “We asked ourselves: Could we cut out the middle man — solar cells — and use the light-absorbing quality of nanographene alone to drive the reaction?”

Li plans to make the molecule more powerful, including making it last longer and survive in a non-liquid form as solid catalysts are easier to use in the real world. He is also working to replace the rhenium atom in the molecule – a rare element – with manganese, a more common and less expensive metal.

For more, see “Well-Defined Nanographene–Rhenium Complex as an Efficient Electrocatalyst and Photocatalyst for Selective CO2 Reduction.”

Related articles:
Solar energy conversion breakthrough using new class of materials
New ‘better than graphene’ material offers promise in energy devices
Light-harvesting approach promises more efficient solar energy
Ultra-thin graphene sheets to power future smart technologies

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