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[Due to the increasing size of the archives, each topic page now contains only the prior 365 days of content. Access to older stories is now solely through the Monthly Archive pages or the site search function.]

Berkeley Lab solar-to-fuel system for CO2 to ethanol and ethylene; light-powered production of fuel via artificial photosynthesis

September 19, 2017

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant milestone in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

Many systems have successfully reduced carbon dioxide to chemical and fuel precursors, such as carbon monoxide or a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas. 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—ethanol and ethylene—at energy conversion efficiencies rivaling natural counterparts.

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DOE announces achievement of SunShot goal, new research focus; $82M in two new solar power opportunities

September 13, 2017

In conjunction with the annual Solar Power International conference, the US Department of Energy (DOE) released new research showing that the solar industry has achieved the 2020 utility-scale solar cost target set by the SunShot Initiative. Largely due to rapid cost declines in solar photovoltaic (PV) hardware, the average price of utility-scale solar is now approximately 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

While utility-scale solar costs have declined nearly 30%, residential- and commercial-scale solar system prices have lagged behind at 6% and 15% reductions, respectively, according to the report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The report shows that the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) benchmarks without subsidies for the first quarter of 2017 fell to between 12.9 and 16.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for residential systems; 9.2-12.0 cents a kWh for commercial systems; 5.0-6.6 cents a kWh for utility-scale fixed-tilt systems; and 4.4-6.1 cents a kWh for utility-scale one-axis tracking systems.

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Lux analysis points to fall off in innovation interest in renewables and energy storage

September 11, 2017

New analysis based on big data analysis by Lux Research suggests that innovation interest in renewables is declining, after peaking about four years ago. Without continued innovation momentum, the market research firm noted, long-term success driven by further clean energy technology improvements is thrown into question.

The Lux Tech Signal works by algorithmically doing high-throughput parallel analysis of various large and complex datasets about innovation, resulting in a revealing picture about any technology’s progress. Lux says that the method has proven successful in uncovering predictive data about emerging innovation such as artificial intelligence, health sensors, and other digital transformation topics, as well as tracking declining innovation like diesel engines and the rise of tight oil, electric vehicles, and quinoa, to give just a few examples.

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French team finds light-driven algal enzyme that converts fatty acids to hydrocarbons

September 01, 2017

A team of researchers in France has discovered an algal photoenzyme that catalyzes the decarboxylation of free fatty acids to n-alkanes or -alkenes in response to blue light. In a paper in the journal Science, the researchers suggest that the photoenzyme, which they named fatty acid photodecarboxylase, may be useful in light-driven, bio-based production of hydrocarbons.

Many organisms—photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic—use light for processes such as growth, development, and metabolism. In most cases, the researchers note, the effects of light on cell physiology are mediated by photoactive proteins, which include light-sensitive ion channels and pumps, photoreceptors, photosynthetic antenna proteins, and light-dependent enzymes. There are two different types of light-dependent enzymes: light-activated, which requires only a flash of light to become active; and photoenzymes, which require a continuous flux of photons to remain catalytically active. Photoenzymes, they note, are rare.

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Metallic nanostructures with strong light confinement can triple the efficiency of solar-based hydrogen generation

August 29, 2017

Researchers led by a team from KAUST have found a more sustainable route to hydrogen fuel production using chaotic, light-trapping materials that mimic natural photosynthetic water splitting. In a paper in the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers report a new photocatalyst for hydrogen evolution based on metal epsilon-near-zero (ENZ) metamaterials.

The authors designed these to achieve broadband strong light confinement at the metal interface across the entire solar spectrum. Using electron energy loss spectroscopy, the authors show that hot carriers are generated in a broadband fashion within 10 nm in this system. The resulting photocatalyst achieves a hydrogen production rate of 9.5 µmol h−1 cm−2 that exceeds, by a factor of 3.2, that of the best previously reported plasmonic-based photocatalysts for the dissociation of H2 with 50 h stable operation.

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NREL, Swiss scientists create silicon-based multijunction solar cells that reach nearly 36% efficiency

August 26, 2017

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created tandem solar cells with record efficiencies of converting sunlight into electricity under 1-sun illumination. Their paper appears in the new issue of Nature Energy.

In testing silicon-based multijunction solar cells, the researchers found that the highest dual-junction efficiency (32.8%) came from a tandem cell that stacked a layer of gallium arsenide (GaAs) developed by NREL atop a film of crystalline silicon developed by CSEM. An efficiency of 32.5% was achieved using a gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) top cell, which is a similar structure to the previous record efficiency of 29.8% announced in January 2016. A third cell, consisting of a GaInP/GaAs tandem cell stacked on a silicon bottom cell, reached a triple-junction efficiency of 35.9%—just 2% below the overall triple-junction record.

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Audi partners with Alta Devices on thin-film solar cells in panoramic glass roofs; first prototype this year

August 23, 2017

Audi and Alta Devices, a wholly-owned US subsidiary of the Chinese solar-cell specialist Hanergy, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation in thin film solar cell technology. Through this cooperation, the partners aim to generate solar energy to increase the range of electric vehicles. The first prototype is to be built by the end of 2017.

As the first step in the joint Audi/Hanergy thin film solar cell research and development project, the partners will integrate Alta Devices’ GaAs thin-film solar cells into a panoramic glass roof. The system will extend EV range by feeding solar energy into the internal vehicle electrical system—supporting air conditioning and other electrical appliances.

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Study finds anthropogenic PM and dust undercutting global solar energy production

June 27, 2017

According to a new study led by a team at Duke University, airborne particulate matter and dust are cutting solar photovoltaic energy output by more than 25% in certain parts of the world, with roughly equal contributions from ambient PM and PM deposited on photovoltaic surfaces. The regions hardest hit are also those investing the most in solar energy installations: China, India and the Arabian Peninsula. An open-access paper on the study appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

With colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar (IITGN) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Michael Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University and lead author of the study, measured the decrease in solar energy gathered by the IITGN’s solar panels as they became dirtier over time. The data showed a 50% jump in efficiency each time the panels were cleaned after being left alone for several weeks.

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Osaka team develops new solar-to-hydrogen catalyst that uses broader spectrum of light

June 26, 2017

A team at Osaka University in Japan has developed a new material based on gold and black phosphorus to harvest a broader spectrum of sunlight for water-splitting to produce hydrogen.

The three-part composite maximizes both absorbing light and its efficiency for water splitting. The core is a traditional semiconductor—lanthanum titanium oxide (LTO). The LTO surface is partly coated with gold nanoparticles. Finally, the gold-covered LTO is mixed with ultrathin sheets of the element black phosphorus (BP), which acts as a light absorber. The optimum H2 production rates of BP-Au/LTO were about 0.74 and 0.30 mmol g-1 h-1 at wavelengths longer than 420 nm and 780 nm, respectively. A paper on the team’s work is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie: International Edition.

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New mesocrystal photocatalyst enhances light-driven hydrogen production

May 18, 2017

A group of Japanese researchers has developed a novel photocatalyst for increased hydrogen production. The strontium titanate mesocrystal exhibits three times the efficiency for hydrogen evolution compared to conventional disordered systems in alkaline aqueous solution. The mesocrystal also exhibits a high quantum yield of 6.7% at 360 nm in overall water splitting and even good durability up to 1 day.

The discovery was made by a joint research team led by Associate Professor Takashi Tachikawa (Molecular Photoscience Research Center, Kobe University) and Professor Tetsuro Majima (Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, Osaka University). Their findings were published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

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NREL researchers capture excess photon energy to produce solar fuels; higher efficiency water-splitting for H2

April 14, 2017

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a proof-of-principle photoelectrochemical cell (PEC) capable of capturing excess photon energy normally lost to generating heat.

Using quantum dots (QD) and a process called Multiple Exciton Generation (MEG), the NREL researchers were able to push the peak external quantum efficiency for hydrogen generation to 114%. The advancement could significantly boost the production of hydrogen from sunlight by using the cell to split water at a higher efficiency and lower cost than current photoelectrochemical approaches. The research is outlined in a paper in Nature Energy.

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NREL sets new world efficiency record for solar hydrogen production: 16.2%

April 13, 2017

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recaptured the record for highest efficiency in solar hydrogen production via a photoelectrochemical (PEC) water-splitting process.

The new solar-to-hydrogen (STH) efficiency record is 16.2%, topping a reported 14% efficiency in 2015 by an international team made up of researchers from Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, TU Ilmenau, Fraunhofer ISE and the California Institute of Technology. A paper in Nature Energy outlines how NREL’s new record was achieved. The authors are James Young, Myles Steiner, Ryan France, John Turner, and Todd Deutsch, all from NREL, and Henning Döscher of Philipps-Universität Marburg in Germany. Döscher has an affiliation with NREL.

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Cambridge team demonstrates light-driven photoreforming of unprocessed biomass to H2 at room temperature

March 14, 2017

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has reported the light-driven photoreforming of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin to H2 using semiconducting cadmium sulfide quantum dots in alkaline aqueous solution.

The system operates under visible light, is stable beyond six days and is even able to reform unprocessed lignocellulose, such as wood and paper, under solar irradiation at room temperature, presenting an inexpensive route to drive aqueous proton reduction to H2 through waste biomass oxidation. A paper on their work is published in the journal Nature Energy.

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NSF to award $13M to projects focused on electrochemical and organic photovoltaic systems

February 24, 2017

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) will award more than $13 million to projects in the Energy for Sustainability program. The goal of the Energy for Sustainability program is to support fundamental engineering research that will enable innovative processes for the sustainable production of electricity and fuels, and for energy storage. Processes for sustainable energy production must be environmentally benign, reduce greenhouse gas production, and utilize renewable resources.

The focus of this funding opportunity (PD-17-7644) is on electrochemical energy systems and organic photovoltaics.

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NREL shows graded catalytic-protective layer boosts longevity of high-efficiency photocathodes for renewable hydrogen

January 09, 2017

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a method which boosts the longevity of high-efficiency photocathodes in photoelectrochemical water-splitting devices. Their works demonstrates the potential of utilizing a hybridized, heterogeneous surface layer as a cost-effective catalytic and protective interface for solar hydrogen production.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Energy, they show that annealing a bilayer of amorphous titanium dioxide (TiOx) and molybdenum sulfide (MoSx) deposited onto GaInP2 results in a photocathode with high catalytic activity and stability for the hydrogen evolution reaction. The study showed that the annealing results in a graded MoSx/MoOx/TiO2 layer that retains much of the high catalytic activity of amorphous MoSx but with stability similar to crystalline MoS2.

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Tesla and Panasonic to manufacture solar cells and modules in Buffalo, NY; 1GW by 2019

December 27, 2016

Tesla and Panasonic finalized an agreement to begin the manufacturing of photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules at the Buffalo, NY factory. These high-efficiency PV cells and modules will be used to produce solar panels in the non-solar roof products. When production of the solar roof begins, Tesla will also incorporate Panasonic’s cells into the many kinds of solar glass tile roofs that Tesla will be manufacturing.

As part of the agreement, Panasonic will cover required capital costs in Buffalo and Tesla is making a long-term purchase commitment from Panasonic. The collaboration extends the established relationship between Tesla and Panasonic, which includes the production of electric vehicle and grid storage battery cells at the Tesla Gigafactory.

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On the road to solar fuels and chemicals

In a new paper in the journal Nature Materials (in an edition focused on materials for sustainable energy), a team from Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has reviewed milestones in the progress of solid-state photoelectrocatalytic technologies toward delivering solar fuels and chemistry.

Noting the “important advances” in solar fuels research, the review team also noted that the largest scientific and technical milestones are still ahead. Following their review, they listed some of the scientific challenges they see as the most important for the coming years.

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Hydrogen from sunlight, but as a dark reaction; time-delayed photocatalytic H2 production

December 09, 2016

A team at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, Germany, and collaborators at ETH Zurich and the University of Cambridge, have developed a system that enables time-delayed photocatalytic hydrogen generation—essentially, an artificial photosynthesis system that can operate in the dark. A paper on their work is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

The system uses a carbon nitride-based material that can harvest and store sunlight as long-lived trapped electrons for redox chemistry in the dark. More specifically, the system comprises a partially anionic, cyanamide-functionalized heptazine polymer, which, in the presence of an appropriate electron donor, forms a radical species under irradiation that has a lifetime of more than 10 hours. This ultra-long-lived radical can reductively produce hydrogen in the presence of a hydrogen evolution catalyst in the dark on demand.

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Nissan and Eaton broaden xStorage Home energy storage portfolio; 10-year xStorage Buildings deal with Amsterdam ArenA

November 30, 2016

Nissan and power management leader Eaton are broadening their portfolio of xStorage Home residential energy storage solutions—which can use second-life EV batteries—by introducing a range of six product configurations, giving consumers greater choice to meet their energy needs. This announcement comes as pre-orders of xStorage Home begin today in the United Kingdom, Norway and Germany with other European markets to follow in the coming months.

Nissan and Eaton also announced a 10-year deal with Amsterdam ArenA—home of Ajax Football Club and world-famous entertainment venue—to provide back-up power to the arena from second-life Nissan LEAF batteries. The 55,000-seat stadium has hosted numerous high profile concerts and sporting events over the years.

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BMW Digital Charging Service optimizes charging and integrates electric vehicles into the energy market

November 28, 2016

BMW i is expanding its engagement in electric mobility with the new BMW Digital Charging Service (DCS)—an intelligent service for predictive, convenient, cost-effective and green power-optimized charging. The Digital Charging Service optimizes charging technology for BMW i and BMW iPerformance vehicles and will be extended in a later phase to other brands. Pilot markets for the new service are Germany and the Netherlands in early 2017, subsequently more countries will follow.

After activation, the service carries out the charging process fully independently and autonomously. The BMW Digital Charging Service is based on two core functions: tariff- and solar-optimized vehicle charging.

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Stanford team sets record for solar-to-hydrogen efficiency of solar water splitting: >30%

November 02, 2016

Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated solar water splitting by photovoltaic-electrolysis with a solar-to-hydrogen (STH) efficiency of more than 30%—a new record. The prior record was 24.4%. An open-access paper on their work is published in the journal Nature Communications.

The system consists of two polymer electrolyte membrane electrolyzers in series with one InGaP/GaAs/GaInNAsSb triple-junction solar cell, which produces a large-enough voltage to drive both electrolyzers with no additional energy input. The solar concentration is adjusted such that the maximum power point of the photovoltaic is well matched to the operating capacity of the electrolyzers to optimize the system efficiency. The results, the researchers said, demonstrate the potential of photovoltaic-electrolysis systems for cost-effective solar energy storage.

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