ERA Grand Challenge Project Makes Important Advances

Zetian Mi, the leader for the ERA Grand Challenge project led by McGill University, speaks at the Propel Energy Tech Forum in Calgary on March 1, 2017..

The McGill project, now in the second round of the ERA Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses, is making important advances. The team has developed an artificial photosynthesis device that doubles the efficiency of harnessing sunlight to break apart both fresh and salt water, and generate hydrogen that can then be used in fuel cells.

“If we can directly store solar energy as a chemical fuel, like what nature does with photosynthesis, we could solve a fundamental challenge of renewable energy,” said project leader Zetian Mi.

Currently, solar cells cannot store electricity without batteries, that have a high overall cost and limited shelf life.

The artificial photosynthesis device the McGill team created is made from widely used materials and operates with sunlight and seawater, paving the way for large-scale production of clean hydrogen fuel.

The McGill team has achieved more than 3 per cent efficiency, compared to natural photosynthesis, which operates at about 0.6 per cent. They indicate that 5 per cent efficiency is the threshold for commercialization.

Mi is also working to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and create methanol and syngas.

Additional details are available in the study, “A photochemical diode artificial photosynthesis system for unassisted high efficiency overall pure water splitting,” published in Nature Communications. Authors are Zetian Mi, Faqrul A. Chowdhury, Hung Guo of McGill University and Michel L. Trudeau of the Center of Excellence in Transportation Electrification and Energy Storage, Hydro-Québec.

The work is also supported by the Fuel Cell Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy.