My research group studies solar energy conversion technologies that generate power from sunlight absorption through ion transport. In my presentation I will report on my research group’s recent demonstration of ion transport against concentration gradients that was driven by solar illumination of dye-sensitized ion-conducting materials. Mechanistically, visible light was used to drive endergonic excited-state proton transfer from a covalent photoacid-modified cation-conductive membrane. Photoacid molecules convert the energy in light into a change in the chemical potential of a proton via weakening of a protic functional group on the photoacid, i.e. a decrease in its pKa. A cation-conductive membrane served as the selective contact for protons such that absorption of light resulted in photovoltaic action, i.e. a photocurrent and a photovoltage. Bipolar membranes are another class of ion-conductive polymers that were used to demonstrate similar photo-activity. They consist of a monopolar cation-conductive polymer that is in intimate contact with a monopolar anion-conductive polymer. The physics that describes the ion-equilibration processes within bipolar membranes resembles that which occurs during equilibration of semiconductor pn-junctions.
As a model system for ion-channels in phase-segregated ion-conducting polymers, dye-sensitized conical nanopores in poly(ethylene terephthalate) (1 – 108 pores/cm2) were investigated. Remarkably, in a region occupied by ~20 zeptoliters (~2 x 10-20 L) of aqueous electrolyte, electrochemistry and fluorescence microscopy were used to determine the photoacidity of the surface-bound dye molecules, which changed from the values found in bulk solution, likely as a result of surface charges in the confined nanopores.
This body of work represents an underappreciated solar energy conversion process that is being pioneered by my research group to operate via a mechanism similar to that of semiconductor pn-junctions. The applicability and practicality of these materials as standalone devices for desalination of salt water will also be presented.