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Panasonic’s “artificial photosynthesis” uses a nitride semiconductor as a photoreactor on the way to making CO2 for conversion into chemicals. Credit: Panasonic

Best known as a consumer electronics company, Panasonic is investing in research for using solar energy to produce industrial chemicals from CO2.

The company yesterday provided some details on its “artificial photosynthesis” research it says can form the basis for large-scale conversion of CO2 into useful products using sunlight as an energy source. Company scientists plan to present at the International Conference on Photochemical Conversion and Storage of Solar Energy later this week.

Panasonic’s approach relies on a nitride semiconductor in the presence of light to produce a flow of electrons and split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Using a semiconductor in sunlight changes the energy state of CO2 and makes it suitable to conversion into other more valuable, organic molecules, according to Panasonic. A second reaction uses a metal catalyst to combine the “reduced” CO2 and hydrogen to make formic acid, a chemical used in the production of textiles and dyes.

The efficiency of the conversion of water, CO2, and sunlight to formic acid is 0.2 percent, which is not high enough for commercial use. But Panasonic says the performance of a nitride semiconductor, which are typically used for LEDs, as a photo electrode has improved significantly because advances in thin-film semiconductor manufacturing.

On the face of it, Panasonic’s pursuit of solar-powered CO2 conversion is a long stretch from its roots in electronics manufacturing. But the Japanese industrial giant is trying to diversify its product mix with energy-related gear. It purchased solar panel provider Sanyo, supplies lithium ion battery cells to Tesla Motors, and builds residential fuel cell systems. Its work on artificial photosynthesis, though, is still research and far from being a commercial product. 

The IPS-19 conference where Panasonic will present its work is very much aimed at breakthroughs in solar fuels, such as using solar energy directly for hydrogen energy storage.

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