The Artificial Leaf

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Department of Chemistry, 6-335, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-4307, United States
Cite this: Acc. Chem. Res. 2012, 45, 5, 767–776
Publication Date (Web):April 4, 2012
Copyright © 2012 American Chemical Society
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To convert the energy of sunlight into chemical energy, the leaf splits water via the photosynthetic process to produce molecular oxygen and hydrogen, which is in a form of separated protons and electrons. The primary steps of natural photosynthesis involve the absorption of sunlight and its conversion into spatially separated electron–hole pairs. The holes of this wireless current are captured by the oxygen evolving complex (OEC) of photosystem II (PSII) to oxidize water to oxygen. The electrons and protons produced as a byproduct of the OEC reaction are captured by ferrodoxin of photosystem I. With the aid of ferrodoxin–NADP+ reductase, they are used to produce hydrogen in the form of NADPH. For a synthetic material to realize the solar energy conversion function of the leaf, the light-absorbing material must capture a solar photon to generate a wireless current that is harnessed by catalysts, which drive the four electron/hole fuel-forming water-splitting reaction under benign conditions and under 1 sun (100 mW/cm2) illumination.

This Account describes the construction of an artificial leaf comprising earth-abundant elements by interfacing a triple junction, amorphous silicon photovoltaic with hydrogen- and oxygen-evolving catalysts made from a ternary alloy (NiMoZn) and a cobalt–phosphate cluster (Co-OEC), respectively. The latter captures the structural and functional attributes of the PSII-OEC. Similar to the PSII-OEC, the Co-OEC self-assembles upon oxidation of an earth-abundant metal ion from 2+ to 3+, may operate in natural water at room temperature, and is self-healing. The Co-OEC also activates H2O by a proton-coupled electron transfer mechanism in which the Co-OEC is increased by four hole equivalents akin to the S-state pumping of the Kok cycle of PSII. X-ray absorption spectroscopy studies have established that the Co-OEC is a structural relative of Mn3CaO4–Mn cubane of the PSII-OEC, where Co replaces Mn and the cubane is extended in a corner-sharing, head-to-tail dimer.

The ability to perform the oxygen-evolving reaction in water at neutral or near-neutral conditions has several consequences for the construction of the artificial leaf. The NiMoZn alloy may be used in place of Pt to generate hydrogen. To stabilize silicon in water, its surface is coated with a conducting metal oxide onto which the Co-OEC may be deposited. The net result is that immersing a triple-junction Si wafer coated with NiMoZn and Co-OEC in water and holding it up to sunlight can effect direct solar energy conversion via water splitting. By constructing a simple, stand-alone device composed of earth-abundant materials, the artificial leaf provides a means for an inexpensive and highly distributed solar-to-fuels system that employs low-cost systems engineering and manufacturing. Through this type of system, solar energy can become a viable energy supply to those in the non-legacy world.

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