Net primary energy balance of a solar-driven photo-electrochemical water-splitting device

Publication Type

Journal Article




A fundamental requirement for a renewable energy generation technology is that it should produce more energy during its lifetime than is required to manufacture it. In this study we evaluate the primary energy requirements of a prospective renewable energy technology, solar-driven photoelectrochemical (PEC) production of hydrogen from water. Using a life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology, we evaluate the primary energy requirements for upstream raw material preparation and fabrication under a range of assumptions of processes and materials. As the technology is at a very early stage of research and development, the analysis has considerable uncertainties. We consider and analyze three cases that we believe span a relevant range of primary energy requirements: 1550 MJ m−2 (lower case), 2110 MJ m−2 (medium case), and 3440 MJ m−2 (higher case). We then use the medium case primary energy requirement to estimate the net primary energy balance (energy produced minus energy requirement) of the PEC device, which depends on device performance, e.g. longevity and solar-to-hydrogen (STH) efficiency. We consider STH efficiency ranging from 3% to 10% and longevity ranging from 5 to 30 years to assist in setting targets for research, development and future commercialization. For example, if STH efficiency is 3%, the longevity must be at least 8 years to yield a positive net energy. A sensitivity analysis shows that the net energy varies significantly with different assumptions of STH efficiency, longevity and thermo-efficiency of fabrication. Material choices for photoelectrodes or catalysts do not have a large influence on primary energy requirements, though less abundant materials like platinum may be unsuitable for large scale-up.


Energy and Environmental Science



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