Yun Hang Hu, the Charles and Caroll McArthur Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Technological University, has developed a new, inexpensive kind of material called 3D graphene that could replace the platinum in solar cells without degrading their efficiency.

One of the most promising types of solar cells has a few drawbacks. Dye-sensitized solar cells are thin, flexible, easy to make and very good at turning sunshine into electricity. However, a key ingredient is one of the most expensive metals on the planet: platinum. While only small amounts are needed, at $1,500 an ounce, the cost of the silvery metal is still significant.

Regular graphene is a famously two-dimensional form of carbon just a molecule or so thick.  Hu and his team invented a novel approach to synthesize a unique 3D version with a honeycomb-like structure.

3D Graphene Structure. Click image for more info.

3D Graphene Structure. Click image for more info.

To make 3D graphene they combined lithium oxide with carbon monoxide in a chemical reaction that forms lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and the honeycomb graphene. The Li2CO3 helps shape the graphene sheets and isolates them from each other, preventing the formation of garden-variety graphite. Furthermore, the Li2CO3 particles can be easily removed from 3D honeycomb-structured graphene by an acid.

The researchers determined that the 3D honeycomb graphene had excellent conductivity and high catalytic activity, raising the possibility that it could be used for energy storage and conversion. So they replaced the platinum counter electrode in a dye-sensitized solar cell with one made of the 3D honeycomb graphene. Then they put the solar cell in the sunshine and measured its output.

The cell with the 3D graphene counter electrode converted 7.8 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, nearly as much as the conventional solar cell using costly platinum (8 percent).

Synthesizing the 3D honeycomb graphene is neither expensive nor difficult, said Hu, and making it into a counter electrode posed no special challenges.

The article describing the work, “3D Honeycomb-Like Structured Graphene and Its High Efficiency as a Counter-Electrode Catalyst for Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells,” coauthored by Hu, Michigan Tech graduate student Hui Wang, Franklin Tao of the University of Notre Dame, Dario J. Stacchiola of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Kai Sun of the University of Michigan, was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, International Edition.

Hopefully everyone using platinum for conductive use will have a look.  The research isn’t directed to the platinum catalyst function, though.  For now the Michigan team has come up with a clever and useful process to make graphene a bit more substantial and very likely useful in lots more ways.


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