Releasing the Bubbles: Efficient Phase Separation in (Photo-)Electrochemical Devices in Microgravity Environment
One of the major challenges human space exploration faces is the absence of buoyancy forces in orbit. Consequently, phase separation is severely hindered which impacts a large variety of space technologies including propellant management devices, heat transfer and life support systems e.g., during the production of oxygen and the recycling of carbon dioxide. Of particular interest are hereby (photo-)electrochemical (PEC) devices as they can produce essential chemicals such as oxygen and hydrogen in two set-ups: either, by coupling the electrochemical cell to external photovoltaic cells as currently utilized on the International Space Station or by direct utilization of sunlight in a monolithic device, where integrated semiconductor-electrocatalyst systems carry out the processes of light absorption, charge separation and catalysis in analogy to natural photosynthesis in one system. The latter device is particularly interesting for space applications due to present mass and volume constraints. Here, we discuss two combined approaches to overcome phase separation challenges in (photo-)electrolyzer systems in reduced gravitational environments: using the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) as a model reaction, we combine nanostructured, hydrophilic electrocatalyst surfaces for efficient gas bubble desorption with magnetically-induced buoyancy to direct the produced hydrogen gas bubbles on specific trajectories away from the (photo-)electrode surface. (Photo-)current-voltage (J-V) profiles obtained in microgravity environments generated for 9.2 s at the Bremen Drop Tower show that our systems can operate with our two-fold approach near terrestrial efficiencies. Simulations of gas bubble trajectories accompany our experimental observations, allowing us to attribute the achieved phase separation in the PEC cells to the increased electrode wettability as well as the systematic use of diamagnetic and Lorentz forces.
Dr. Katharina Brinkert is an Assistant Professor in Catalysis (tenure-track) at the University of Warwick, UK, and a group leader at ZARM, University of Bremen, where her research interests comprise artificial photosynthesis systems for the application in solar fuel devices and (photo-)electrocatalytic synthesis in terrestrial and space environments. Previously, she was a Leopoldina Postdoctoral Scholar at the Californian Institute of Technology/USA and a Research Fellow at the European Space and Technology Center/Netherlands after receiving her PhD from Imperial College London in 2015. She is a recipient of the Zeldovich Medal for the foundation of the research field “Photoelectrocatalysis and Solar Fuels in Space”.