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Interdisciplinary Research Centre

Researchers have found a way to super-charge the ‘engine’ of sustainable fuel generation – by giving the materials a little twist.

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, are developing low-cost light-harvesting semiconductors that power devices for converting water into clean hydrogen fuel, using just the power of the sun. These semiconducting materials, known as copper oxides, are cheap, abundant and non-toxic, but their performance does not come close to silicon, which dominates the semiconductor market.

However, the researchers found that by growing the copper oxide crystals in a specific orientation so that electric charges move through the crystals at a diagonal, the charges move much faster and further, greatly improving performance. Tests of a copper oxide light harvester, or photocathode, based on this fabrication technique showed a 70% improvement over existing state-of-the-art oxide photocathodes, while also showing greatly improved stability.

The researchers say their results, reported in the journal Nature, show how low-cost materials could be fine-tuned to power the transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean, sustainable fuels that can be stored and used with existing energy infrastructure.

Copper (I) oxide, or cuprous oxide, has been touted as a cheap potential replacement for silicon for years, since it is reasonably effective at capturing sunlight and converting it into electric charge. However, much of that charge tends to get lost, limiting the material’s performance.


Like other oxide semiconductors, cuprous oxide has its intrinsic challenges. One of those challenges is the mismatch between how deep light is absorbed and how far the charges travel within the material, so most of the oxide below the top layer of material is essentially dead space,” Dr Linfeng Pan (co-first author), Dept of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology


Using thin film deposition techniques, the researchers were able to grow high-quality cuprous oxide films at ambient pressure and room temperature. By precisely controlling growth and flow rates in the chamber, they were able to ‘shift’ the crystals into a particular orientation. Then, using high temporal resolution spectroscopic techniques, they were able to observe how the orientation of the crystals affected how efficiently electric charges moved through the material.

"For most solar cell materials, it’s defects on the surface of the material that cause a reduction in performance, but with these oxide materials, it’s the other way round: the surface is largely fine, but something about the bulk leads to losses. This means the way the crystals are grown is vital to their performance,” Professor Sam Stranks (research lead), Dept of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology


The research was a collaboration with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Nankai University and Uppsala University. The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Sam Stranks is Professor of Optoelectronics in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.


Reference: Linfeng Pan, Linjie Dai et al. ‘High carrier mobility along the [111] orientation in Cu2O photoelectrodes.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07273-8

Full University of Cambridge article


Image credit: PublicDomainPictures