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Porous silicon produces hydrogen using solar energy

15 Apr 2014  | Paul Buckley

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A new method of manufacturing porous silicon, which can use solar energy to generate hydrogen from water, is now possible with the discovery by mechanical engineers at Penn State. In addition, it could also be used as the anode in a lithium-ion battery and has applications in biosensors and optical electronics.

"This porous silicon can generate a good amount of hydrogen just from sunlight," explained Donghai Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "The surface area of this porous silicon is high. It is widely used and has a lot of applications."

The standard method for manufacturing porous silicon is a subtraction method, similar to making a sculpture.

"Silicon is an important material because it is a semiconductor. Typically, porous silicon is produced by etching, a process in which lots of material is lost," said Wang.

Wang's team used a chemically based method that builds up the material rather than removing it. The researchers start with silicon tetrachloride which is an inexpensive source of silicon and treat the material with a sodium potassium alloy.

"The bonds between silicon and chlorine in silicon tetrachloride are very strong and require a highly reducing agent," said Wang. "Sodium potassium alloy is such an agent."

Once the bonds break, the chlorine binds with the sodium, potassium and silicon, potassium chloride and sodium chloride to become solid, forming a material composed of crystals of salt embedded in silicon. The material is then heat-treated and washed in water to dissolve the salt, leaving pores that range from 5nm to 15nm.

Because sodium potassium alloy is highly reactive, the entire procedure must be done away from the oxygen in the air, so the researchers carry out their reaction in an argon atmosphere.

"I believe that the process can be scaled up to manufacturing size," said Wang. "There are some processes that use sodium potassium alloy at industrial levels. So we can adapt their approaches to make this new type of porositic silicon."

Because these silicon particles have lots of pores, they have a large surface area and act as an effective catalyst when sunlight shines on this porous silicon and water. The energy in sunlight can excite an electron that then reduces water, generating hydrogen gas. This process is aided by the material's larger-than-normal band gap, which comes from the nanoscale size of the silicon crystallites.




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