LICROX: €3 million and 3 years to convert CO₂ and sunlight into solar fuels

  • The LICROX Project ambitions to make a key contribution towards EU climate neutrality in 2050 via the creation of an efficient artificial photosynthesis system.
  • One of the challenges of the project works is the development of enhanced photoelectrochemical cells that improve upon existing systems.
  • The impact areas of LICROX include clean power generation and the generation of raw materials for the chemical industry, among others.

Towards climate neutrality in 2050

Aside of the pandemic, the year 2020 will be remembered as one of the warmest years on the books. The recently approved European Green Deal aims to build a sustainable growth strategy to reach climate neutrality in the continent by 2050. Radically new technologies based on renewable energies need to be developed in the coming years to reach such an ambitious target. To attain these goals, it is clear that humanity needs to work together to overcome the major global challenges ahead.

In the fight against climate change, the artificial photosynthesis system by researchers of the LICROX project will have a key role. The natural process of photosynthesis allows plants and other photosynthetic organisms (algae and some bacteria) to convert solar energy, water and carbon dioxide (CO₂) in carbohydrates (their fuel). Artificial photosynthetic systems mimics this natural process aiming to outperform it by developing more efficient and simpler procedures.

The LICROX project works to improve current artificial photosynthesis systems. Will it one day overtake its natural counterpart?
The LICROX project works to improve current artificial photosynthesis systems. Will it one day overtake its natural counterpart?

Areas that can benefit from artificial photosynthesis include, among others, dry agriculture or hydrogen production. This technology has the potential for substantially reducing global water consumption and to contribute towards clean energy production systems by the generation of electrical power and chemicals (such as hydrogen, ethylene or others) by means of sunlight.

In search for more efficient photoelectrochemical cells

Among artificial photosynthesis designs, photoelectrochemical cells (PECs) have the potential to become an efficient and cost-effective technology for the direct conversion of solar energy. Current drawbacks in the development of artificial photosynthesis systems include poor PEC efficiency in absorbing sunlight, poor selectivity in the reduction of CO2 to carbon-based compounds and utilisation of non-abundant raw materials or toxic elements in the catalytic elements of the system.

The LICROX electrochemical cell for the generation of solar fuels consists of a photoanode, where water oxidation takes place; a semi-transparent organic photovoltaic solar cell (OPV) and a photocathode, where carbon dioxide reduction (CO₂R), hence carbon fixation, takes places.

LICROX photoelectrochemical cell. Left: photoanode; middle: semi-transparent organic photovoltaic cell; right: photocathode
LICROX photoelectrochemical cell. Left: photoanode; middle: semi-transparent organic photovoltaic cell; right: photocathode

LICROX aims to implement a new type of PEC incorporating light trapping mechanisms to boost the light harvesting efficiency and catalysts made of only abundant elements. The system will selectively drive water oxidation and carbon dioxide reduction reactions in order to obtain carbon-based products like ethylene, one of the most important products currently used by the chemical industry, with high levels of efficiency.

LICROX: an ambitious international effort

With a budget of near € 3.2 million and a duration of 3 years, starting on the 1st September of 2020, the LICROX project has been awarded within the European FET Proactive call: emerging paradigms and communities (FETPROACT-EIC-05-2019), under the subtopic “Breakthrough zero-emissions energy generation for full decarbonization”.

With participation of members of five countries, LICROX brings together a consortium of 7 European partners. They include: two technical universities, the Technical University of Munich (TUM, Germany) and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland); two research institutes (both SOMMa members) which are the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO, Spain) and the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ, Spain); two companies: Avantama (Switzerland) and Hysytech (Italy); and a foundation working in technology assessment and public engagement, the Danish Board of Technology Foundation (DBT, Denmark).

The kick-off meeting of the took place on 8th October 2020. The meeting allowed to virtually meet the team members, share the project structure and organisation, plan the main actions for the first months and introduce the current members of the project’s External Advisory Board, Prof. Michael Grätzel (Professor of Physical Chemistry at EPFL) and Prof. Maximilian Fleischer (Chief Expert Energy, Siemens Energy), who also participated in the meeting.

 “LICROX is a highly multidisciplinary effort where chemistry, physics, engineering, optics and social involvement specialists join together with the final aim to contribute to the global transition from fossil fuels to solar fuels. The best photoanode and photocathode produced through the project will be implemented and validated in a final PEC prototype,” explains Prof. Antoni Llobet, LICROX coordinator and Full Professor at ICIQ.

Image credits:

Picture of plant silhouette against the sunlight is in the public domain and was downloaded and modified from original picture at Jooin.

Artificial photosynthesis cell diagram reproduced with kind permission of ICIQ.