Toward a more efficient use of solar energy

Titania can be used to convert light into chemical energy. Such photocatalytic processes are much more efficient for the titania modification anatase (b) than for rutile (a). (Credit: Dr. Mingchun Xu, Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The exploitation and utilization of new energy sources are considered to be among today’s major challenges. Solar energy plays a central role, and its direct conversion into chemical energy, for example hydrogen generation by water splitting, is one of its interesting variants. Titanium oxide-based photocatalysis is the presently most efficient, yet little understood conversion process. In cooperation with colleagues from Germany and abroad, scientists of the KIT Institute for Functional Interfaces (IFG) have studied the basic mechanisms of photochemistry by the example of titania and have presented new detailed findings.

Even though hydrogen production from water and sunlight by means of oxide powders has been studied extensively for several decades, the basic physical and chemical mechanisms of the processes involved cannot yet be described in a satisfactory way. Together with colleagues from the universities of St. Andrews (Scotland) and Bochum and Helmholtz-Forschungszentrum Berlin, scientists at KIT’s Institute for Functional Interfaces, headed by Professor Christof Wöll, have succeeded in gathering new findings on the fundamental mechanisms of photochemistry on titanium dioxide (TiO2).

Titanium dioxide, or titania, is a photoactive material occurring in nature in the rutile and anatase modifications, the latter of which being characterized by a ten times higher photochemical activity. When the white TiO2 powder, which is also used as a pigment in paints and sunscreens, is exposed to light, electrons are excited and can, for example, split water into its components oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen produced in that way is a “clean” energy source: No climate-killing greenhouse gases are generated but only water is produced during combustion. Titanium dioxide is also used to manufacture self-cleaning surfaces from which unwanted films are removed through photochemical processes triggered by incident sunlight. In hospitals, this effect is used for sterilizing specially coated instruments by means of UV irradiation.

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