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Date of Graduation
Bachelor of Science (BS)
Department of Integrated Science and Technology
Increasing global demand, combined with the volatility of fossil fuels, has called for a large-scale increase in renewable energy production. Photovoltaics hold significant potential, but by nature, solar energy is intermittent and lacks dispatchability. Researchers around the world are working to create innovative solutions that utilize semiconductors found in solar cell technologies in new ways. This project harnesses photoelectrochemical water-splitting, which uses light energy to dissociate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. When the water-splitting device is submerged in saltwater and illuminated by sunlight, oxygen and hydrogen gas are produced on opposite surfaces, and can be either released or stored for later use. This device imitates the light-driven catalysts found in the chloroplasts of photosynthesizing plants, which is why it is so aptly named the artificial leaf. Stored hydrogen can be burned in a fuel cell, producing electricity with a byproduct of pure water and no greenhouse gas emissions. In the lab, two strategies to improve artificial leaves were investigated: (1) introducing a transparent, electrically-conducting scaffold made from textured SnO2:Sb to support the BiVO4 photocatalyst, and (2) applying a thin FeOOH co-catalyst coating to the BiVO4 surface to enhance the efficiency of the water-splitting process.
While this product has not yet achieved optimum efficiency, experimental efforts are continuing to improve the performance of JMU artificial leaf prototypes. Once fully integrated into society, hydrogen produced from artificial leaves can be burned in small fuel cells within hydrogen-powered vehicles, while large-scale fuel cells can be used to provide both electricity and fresh water to island and coastal communities. Studying the artificial leaf as an emerging technology allows researchers to identify sociotechnical considerations through scenario crosses, the STIR protocol, systems dynamics modeling, and comparative analyses. Insights collected from experts in the field will inform project characteristics as design fictions are implemented. Existing policies, cultural views, stakeholder analyses, ethical key questions, local job/revenue creation, and the co-production of technology and society are each thoroughly explored to hypothesize how artificial leaves will be integrated into coastal communities.
Treml, Alexandra K. and Mears, Jamie M., "The artificial leaf: An investigation into the sociotechnical integration of new solar energy innovations" (2020). Senior Honors Projects, 2020-current. 96.