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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Accumulative charge separation for solar fuels production: coupling light-induced single electron transfer to multielectron catalysis

Leif Hammarström
Accounts of Chemical Research 2015 March 17, 48 (3): 840-50
25675365
The conversion and storage of solar energy into a fuel holds promise to provide a significant part of the future renewable energy demand of our societies. Solar energy technologies today generate heat or electricity, while the large majority of our energy is used in the form of fuels. Direct conversion of solar energy to a fuel would satisfy our needs for storable energy on a large scale. Solar fuels can be generated by absorbing light and converting its energy to chemical energy by electron transfer leading to separation of electrons and holes. The electrons are used in the catalytic reduction of a cheap substrate with low energy content into a high-energy fuel. The holes are filled by oxidation of water, which is the only electron source available for large scale solar fuel production. Absorption of a single photon typically leads to separation of a single electron-hole pair. In contrast, fuel production and water oxidation are multielectron, multiproton reactions. Therefore, a system for direct solar fuel production must be able to accumulate the electrons and holes provided by the sequential absorption of several photons in order to complete the catalytic reactions. In this Account, the process is termed accumulative charge separation. This is considerably more complicated than charge separation on a single electron level and needs particular attention. Semiconductor materials and molecular dyes have for a long time been optimized for use in photovoltaic devices. Efforts are made to develop new systems for light harvesting and charge separation that are better optimized for solar fuel production than those used in the early devices presented so far. Significant progress has recently been made in the discovery and design of better homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts for solar fuels and water oxidation. While the heterogeneous ones perform better today, molecular catalysts based on transition metal complexes offer much greater tunability of electronic and structural properties, they are typically more amenable to mechanistic analysis, and they are small and therefore require less material. Therefore, they have arguably greater potential as future efficient catalysts but must be efficiently coupled to accumulative charge separation. This Account discusses accumulative charge separation with focus on molecular and molecule-semiconductor hybrid systems. The coupling between charge separation and catalysis involves many challenges that are often overlooked, and they are not always apparent when studying water oxidation and fuel formation as separate half-reactions with sacrificial agents. Transition metal catalysts, as well as other multielectron donors and acceptors, cycle through many different states that may quench the excited sensitizer by nonproductive pathways. Examples where this has been shown, often with ultrafast rates, are reviewed. Strategies to avoid these competing energy-loss reactions and still obtain efficient coupling of charge separation to catalysis are discussed. This includes recent examples of dye-sensitized semiconductor devices with molecular catalysts and dyes that realize complete water splitting, albeit with limited efficiency.

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