Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Semiconductor Nanocomposites for Visible Light Photocatalysis of Water Pollutants

Written By

Fatima Imtiaz, Jamshaid Rashid and Ming Xu

Submitted: 23 January 2019 Reviewed: 26 April 2019 Published: 06 August 2019

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.86542

From the Edited Volume

Concepts of Semiconductor Photocatalysis

Edited by Mohammed Rahman, Anish Khan, Abdullah Asiri and Inamuddin Inamuddin

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Semiconductor photocatalysis gained reputation in the early 1970s when Fujishima and Honda revealed the potential of TiO2 to split water in to hydrogen and oxygen in a photoelectrochemical cell. Their work provided the base for the development of semiconductor photocatalysis for the environmental remediation and energy applications. Photoactivity of some semiconductors was found to be low due to larger band gap energy and higher electron-hole pair recombination rate. To avoid these problems, the development of visible light responsive photocatalytic materials by different approaches, such as metal and/or non-metal doping, co-doping, coupling of semiconductors, composites and heterojunctions materials synthesis has been widely investigated and explored in systematic manner. This chapter emphasizes on the different type of tailored photocatalyst materials having the enhanced visible light absorption properties, lower band gap energy and recombination rate of electron-hole pairs and production of reactive radical species. Visible light active semiconductors for the environmental remediation purposes, particularly for water treatment and disinfection are also discussed in detail. Studies on the photocatalytic degradation of emerging organic compounds like cyanotoxins, VOCs, phenols, pharmaceuticals, etc., by employing variety of modified semiconductors, are summarized, and a mechanistic aspects of the photocatalysis has been discussed.


  • visible light photocatalysis
  • semiconductor composites
  • organic pollutants
  • mechanism
  • wastewater treatment

1. Introduction to photocatalysis

Catalysis refers to a phenomenon in which a substance (the catalyst) speed up a kinetically slow reaction and the catalyst is fully restored at the end of each catalytic cycle and the “Photocatalysis” is defined as a specific process for the acceleration of the “photoreaction” in the presence of a catalyst [1]. Photocatalysis can also be regarded as the catalysis of photochemical reaction on a solid substrate, mostly a semiconductor [2]. The term “Photocatalysis” is still an arguable subject due to controversies, according to some researchers the “light” acts as a catalyst, while it always acts as a “reactant” where it is spent in the chemical process [3].

The word “photoreaction” is sometimes explained as a “Photoinduced” or “Photoactivated,” process, whereas in the field of photocatalysis, “catalytic activity” is the ability of a catalyst to show performance under light depending upon the reaction sites/active sites at the catalyst. The performance of a catalyst can be determined by its “turnover frequency” which is “number of turnovers per unit time of reaction, it is used to show how many times one active site produces a reaction product(s) within unit time.” In case of photocatalysis, the reaction rate depends on the frequency of irradiated light which acts as the initiator of photoreaction. The term photocatalysis indicates the relation of light and some substance; (say a catalyst) so in the absence of light, the process of photocatalytic activities on active sites is not possible [1, 4].

1.1 Brief history of semiconductor photocatalysis

In 1839, the production of voltage and an electric current were reported when silver chloride electrode, immersed in electrolyte solution (connected to counter electrode) exhibited illumination under sunlight, which lately was known as “Becquerel effect” led to the beginning of existing era of photo electrochemistry [3]. In 1921, the Renz published first article on the degradation of carbon compounds by using titanium dioxide. In 1924 the photocatalytic deposition of silver on zinc oxide was observed for the production of metallic silver [2]. In 1929, the “chalking” (fading of paints) effect of titanium white (TiO2), under the strong sunlight was observed, which in 1938 became the basis for self-cleaning property and modification in the concept of photo-induced reduction [5].

During 1950s, the insights of photocatalysis were shifted to ZnO. In 1953, two studies for the production of H2O2 on ZnO under the UV irradiation started a series of follow-up studies in the upcoming years which explained that an organic compound is oxidized when atmospheric oxygen is reduced. Till 1955, the photocatalytic behaviour of ZnO, Sb2O3 and TiO2 including photoconductivity and fluorescence were well known. In 1958, the adsorption of reduced O2 on the TiO2 surface, as a result of photoexcitation, having the ability to degrade a dye was studied. During 1960s and 1970s, the processes and concepts of photo-oxidation of CN and photo-deposition of Pt, Cu, Pd, and other metals on TiO2, WO3, Al2O3, and SnO2 to be used as co-catalysts, had been evolved. In 1972 the field of photo-electrochemical got more attention when Fujishima and Honda reported the ability of an illuminated TiO2 and Pt electrode to generate the H2 gas by a publication in Nature, which opened the doors for the close associations between photo electrochemistry and photocatalysis. By the end of that decade and by the mid of 1980s many other semiconductors, the ideas for nano-sized TiO2 particles and coupled semiconductors had been evolved. The decades of 1980–2000 were important for the field of photoelectrochemistry as major breakthroughs during this era led to the discovery of large number of applications varying from self-cleaning surfaces to disinfection of water [2, 6, 7].

1.2 Semiconductor photocatalysis

The phenomenon gained importance during late 1970s and mid 1980s after the evolution of H2 by illuminated TiO2 (pristine semiconductor) in the presence of noble metal electrode, after that great concern was shown in water splitting followed by emergence of new era of photo electrochemistry at a single semiconductor crystal. The processes of semiconductor photocatalysis for environmental concerns have gained fame during the last 3 decades [8, 9].

Semiconductor photocatalysis can be of two types (i) homogenous photocatalysis, (ii) heterogeneous photocatalysis, depending on the phase differences of reactants and catalysts, triggered the concept of advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) at the end of twentieth century. TiO2 is the semiconductor which can act as both the hetero and homogenous photocatalyst photoreactions [10] (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Fields using semiconductors as photocatalysts from early ages to date [3].

Heterogeneous photocatalysis is a process which includes a large variety of reactions: reductions oxidations, dehydrogenation, transfer of charge carriers, bacterial inactivation, organic pollutant degradation, water detoxification, etc. under both UV and visible light irradiation [1, 11]. Having TiO2 as a semiconductor, the general mechanism is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Primary mechanism of photocatalysis of pristine semiconductor sphere illustrating different steps: (1) Formation of e/h+ as a result of photoexcitation; (2) e recombination in absence of no electron acceptor; (3) photo induced electron transportation and reduction of oxygen; (4) oxidation due to hole in VB, while 3.2 eV is Eg between VB and CB.

The chemistry behind the process is explained as [6]:


1.3 Recombination

In Figure 2, process “2” is “recombination.” When it occurs, the excited electron return to valence band and recombines with hole (by dispersing the absorbed energy as heat) in the absence of electron acceptor in the conduction band. Recombination of photoexcited electron is the major drawback of semiconductors as it lessens the efficiency of overall process. The chances of recombination can be reduced by modifications in the crystalline structure either by doping with metals, non-metals, ions or by the formation of heterostructures [12].

1.4 Basics of heterojunctions

In the internal structure of semiconductors (SCs), there are some band alignments which act as basis for the formation of heterojunctions/heterostructures; prepared for the enhanced activity of SCs’ under sunlight. “Heterojunction is the junction in single crystal, formed by the combination of two dissimilar SCs.” These heterostructures are formed on the basis of band gap, electron affinity and bands position thus leading to the formation of new energy levels. By the formation of HSs/HJs, the movement of charge carriers in a reaction can be controlled. There are three types of heterostructures depending on the energy band alignments. (i) Type I band alignment; the “Straddling” band Pattern. (ii) Type II band alignment; the “Staggered” band Pattern; (iii) Type III band alignment; the “Broken gap” Pattern. Agrawal [13] Type I, the most common band alignment in which the SC with smaller band gap relies under the SC with larger band gap; means band gaps are (not entirely but) overlapped. The charge carriers stay confined in the heterojunction due to the presence of potential barrier. Type II, the position of Valence and Conduction band of first SC is higher than that of second SC, the direction of steps in both SCs is same. The potential difference between two SCs causes the band bending at junction site due to this the electron and hole move in opposite directions, thus leading to good separation of charge carriers in heterojunction structure. When the band gaps stops to overlap then the case is known as “zero gap or broken gap” this is Type III band alignment, which is formed by the combination of semimetal having non-overlapping bandgap with a semiconductor [14, 15]. The illustration of band gap alignment is given Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Schematic illustration of different types of semiconductors heterojunctions [16].

The formation of Type II heterojunctions are good candidates in the field of photocatalysis as it has capability to enhance the charge separation to improve the photoreactions, photocatalytic degradation and water splitting [17].

1.5 General mechanism of water splitting by semiconductors for wastewater treatment

Globally, 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and approximately 2.6 billion people are suffering from safe sanitation, this is particularly an issue in Asia, Africa, South and central America [18], so there is no ambiguity in saying that water management has become an emerging issue for the twenty-first century. Number of anthropogenic activities like industrial activities, discharge of effluents in the water bodies, oil spills and leaching of compounds to groundwater, etc. are interfering the quality of water, thus making it unfit for drinking and domestic purposes and also threatening the natural water resources. It has been estimated that the water quality will be a worst in upcoming decades. In this regard, there is a need for advancement in the fields of water and wastewater treatment because the conventional treatment plants are not capable to remove some persistent pollutants from water [19].

In this perspective the concept of photocatalytic water splitting has been emerged in last decade which are a favorable method for attaining green and renewable energy. For effective water splitting the CB of a SC should be more negative than the redox potential of H+/H2 (0 V vs. NHE) and the top of the valence band should be more positive than the redox potential of O2/H2O (1.23 V vs. NHE). In splitting process water breaks in oxygen and hydrogen by the photoexcitation of electron leaving a hole behind. Semiconductor absorbs the energy equal to or greater than its band gap, the photogenerated electrons and holes starts the redox reactions. Three key stages of water splitting mechanism are; (i) energy absorbance and generation of e/h+ as result of photoexcitation; (ii) the charges remain separated at the opposite sides of SC crystal as a result of minimal recombination; (iii) charge carriers trigger the oxidation and reduction at valance and conduction band or vice versa. By production of reactive species as result of reduction of oxygen and oxidation of water or hydroxyl ion, like H+, OH and O2•− the wide variety of organic pollutants in water are mineralized in to CO2 and H2O [20]. The water splitting mechanism is given in Figure 4.

Figure 4.

Water splitting mechanism illustration and mineralization of organic pollutant.

1.6 Roles of reactive species in pollutant degradation

General reactive or oxidizing species formed during the photocatalytic degradation of pollutants are H+, OH, HO2, H2O2 and O2•−. These photo-oxidants are formed by the steps as described in Eqs. (2)(7).

Hole and hydroxyl radical: A hole generates when an electron moves to CB as a result of photo excitation, and hydroxyl radical generates when the hole oxidizes the hydroxyl ion or the water molecule. There is a debate on the reactiveness of hole and a hydroxyl radical, as they both are important for photocatalytic degradation, because it is still uncertain whether the hole or hydroxyl radical is core oxidant, or is there any dependence on the type of substrate. Minero et al. [21] has investigated that OH has higher oxidizing power as compared to other oxidizing agents as it has the oxidation potential of +2.80 eV slightly less than that of Fluorine +2.87 eV. There are many studies which support the reactivity of OH as an oxidant [22]. Turchi and Ollis [23] have proposed the four ways by which the OH oxidizes the pollutant, Figure 5.

Figure 5.

Scheme of oxidant and pollutant molecule interaction in the presence of a semiconductor. (a) OH is close to the pollutant molecule, when the latter is adsorbed. (b) Oxidation reaction, when OH and substrate both are adsorbed. (c) Pollutant is in the vicinity of OH, when latter is adsorbed on SC surface. (d) Pollutant degradation by oxidation, when both are in solution; where is the target molecule/substrate and is the hydroxyl radical.

Draper et al. [8] has investigated the direct oxidation by the hole, it can be said that the oxidation process in the valence band is started by the hole, by the oxidation of H2O molecule and hydroxyl ion. It would be rational to say that both the hole and OH deal with different classes of compounds; like the production of hydroxylated rings from the oxidation of aromatic compounds and the degradation of paracetamol (acetaminophen) on the TiO2 is caused by OH [24].

Superoxide radical: This specie has been reported to play an important for the degradation/oxidation of many pollutants under both, the visible and ultra violet light irradiations. In addition to direct participation in oxidation the formation of superoxides confirms the decreased recombination rate, as it is formed by the reduction of oxygen molecule. Therefore, superoxide formation is a vital process which controls the reaction rate by accepting the excited electron ([25]).

Hydrogen peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is formed in the solution by the combination of two hydroperoxyl radicals (HOO·) or by the two electron reduction of O2 in the conduction band as shown in Eqs. (6), (7) and (10). It can affect the photocatalytic reaction by acting as electron acceptor directly from organic or inorganic pollutant or by its dissociation into OH due to “homolytic scission” [8]. Reactivity depends on rate of its production and the substrate concentration on the semiconductor. H2O2 mostly in the TiO2 solutions cannot be readily detected due to its high unstable nature. H2O2 is dissipated as it is produced into OH by reduction [21].


Photoproduced reactive species on the photocatalysts undergo oxidation that have been extensively studied during the last decades for environmental remediation including water disinfection, wastewater treatment, air decontamination, self-cleaning glass/surfaces degradation of organic compounds, etc. The reason to attraction towards this process lies in the end products of any type of pollutant which are CO2 and H2O. Actually, the mineralisation of compounds having high carbon hydrogen content, occurs via the formation of many intermediates which also undergo oxidation. In short, the significance of photocatalytic process and photo-oxidation cannot be underestimated because of its emerging demand for the decomposition of refractory organics or recalcitrant compounds.


2. Development of visible light active photocatalysts

Among the several advanced oxidation processes, semiconductor assisted photoreactions are gaining importance in recent years due to their higher mineralization potential of organic pollutants in environment. The main limitation for the pure SC photocatalysts is their large band gap which means there is a need for shorter wavelength of light and high energy photons (λ < 380 nm) to excite the electron from VB to CB. For this purpose, the photons falling in ultra violet region are required. Under the UV irradiation, the electrons in the VB of SCs are excited and e/h+ pair is formed. The problem is, the UV light makes only 4–5% of the solar spectrum while about 40–45% of the solar light falls in visible spectra. The need of UV light limits the photocatalytic activity due to its less availability [12, 20].

In recent years, Yongquan Quab [26] has pointed some critical requirements for a stable SC catalyst to yield the solar energy which are; firstly, the SC must have an appropriate band gap to produce robust electrons (Eg > 1.3 eV commonly >2 eV but <3 eV) and sufficient band gap to allow effective absorption of light under visible region. Secondly, there should be less chances for recombination, i.e., should have an efficient charge separation system; lastly there should be a process to protect the semiconductors from the direct electrochemical reactions to confirm the photoelectrochemical strength of the system.

A single pure semiconductor photocatalyst is unable to fulfill the all above mentioned requirements. Therefore, in order to enhance the photocatalytic activity of the SC, there is a need to enhance their visible light activity, which can either be done by enhancing the surface modifications, i.e., by increasing the surface area and porosity, or by chemicals modifications like doping of metals, non-metals, ions, non-metal co-doping, dye sensitization or by the formation of junctions unitary, binary and tertiary, i.e., semiconductor/semiconductor, semiconductor/metal, semiconductor/metal oxides or the semiconductors/nano-composites [20].

2.1 Doping/grafting of semiconductor photocatalysts

Among all semiconductors TiO2 is considered as pristine, first-generation oldest one with many physical and structural properties. In addition to TiO2 other d-orbital metal oxides like WO3, ZnO, Fe2O3 are regarded as n-type semiconductors while the semiconductors other than metal oxides are CdS, ZnS, CdSe, ZnSe, CdTe, MoS, Sb2S3 among them some have smaller band gaps like CdS and some have higher band gap like ZnS. TiO2 is found in the three crystalline forms named as anatase, rutile and brookite, being the anatase and rutile are more active with band gaps or 3.2 and 3.0 eV. TiO2 has been extensively used and widely investigated due to its high photo activity, biodegradability, less-toxicity, low cost and high structural and chemical stability against photocorrosion process [6, 12].

In order to understand, doping can be defined as “when impurities are added to semiconconductors, the band structure is modified; this process is known as doping.” During the doping process, the doped atoms can present the interstitial, substitution or defect factor in structure of SC. When a semiconductor is doped with an acceptor atom, it is converted into p-type SC, because the acceptor atom is reduced by accepting electrons from VB and increases the production of holes and vice versa. Once SC is doped with any specie, it is supposed to increase the absorption of light in the visible spectrum and the doping material will not disturb the structural or chemical integrity of the SC [22]. The doping positions of dopants are given in Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Six schemes illustrating the different sites for dopants; (A) the localized states above VB; (B) lessened Eg due to non-metal doping; (C) localized states below CB; (D) formation of colored centers between Eg; (E) surface modification by addition of N-containing compounds; (F) interstitial N species and oxygen vacancies [27].

2.2 Non-metal-doped semiconductors

For this type of doping to SCs the non-metals like N, C, S and F have been used. The production of visible light active photocatalysts starts with the doping of N to TiO2 or ZnO lattice, due to its small size, low ionization energy, and high stability. Livraghi et al. [28] proposed that contrary to the concept that nitrogen species are reason for formation of VLA photocatalyst the nitrogen precursor during the doping process induces the oxygen vacancies which renders the SCs able to absorb visible light and to increase phocatalytic activity. In 1986, Sato discovered the addition of NH4OH in the titania sol followed by the calcination of obtained product, the resulting products was visible light active [29]. After that Asahi et al. [30] first time explored the VL activity of N-doped TiO2 by the sputter method of TiO2 under N-Ar atmosphere. They also proposed that nitrogen doping creates a delocalized mixing/hybridization of O 2p and N 2p orbitals causing the rise in valence band position. Later on, for the efficient doping of N to TiO2 either in bulk or at surface both types the dry or wet methods have been adopted. Techniques, like sputtering [31, 32] and ion implementation are based on the direct treatment of TiO2 with nitrogen ions [32, 33].

The most used method of N doping in TiO2 is sol-gel method, in this method the titanium precursors are combined with the nitrogen containing surfactants, for example, the N-doped TiO2 have been prepared by using dodecylammonium chloride (DDCA) as surfactant acting as nitrogen source which provided it damaging capability for microcystins-LR under visible irradiation [34] Figure 7. Degradation of MC-LR and mineralization of 78% of carbon has also been reported by using Bi-doped TiO2 under visible light irradiation having OH as a reactive oxidation specie [35].

Figure 7.

N-doped TiO2 using the titanium precursor and nitrogen containing surfactant as N source and pore template.

Several processes have been proposed to prepare the nanobelts by doping the 1D titania nanostructure with nitrogen following hydrothermal method having the anatase TiO2 particles and NaOH as precursors and heating treatment with NH3 ([25]). Production of N-doped TiO2 nanotubes by the anodization of Ti in HF/H2SO4 electrolyte have been reported [36].

In addition to the N-doped TiO2, ZnO can also be doped which is one of the most studied SC other than TiO2 due to its applications in disinfection process and diversity of shapes but it has low stability. ZnO has also three crystalline forms, named as Zinc blend, Rocksalt and Wurtzite, having third one as most stable and active. The example of N-doped ZnO is preparation of zinc nanobundles by thermal treatment of (already prepared) ZnOHF nanobundles with NH3 at different temperatures, as the temperature was increased the ZnOHF nanobundles were converted to N-ZnO nanobundles (Figure 8). These N-ZnO nanobundles gave dramatic increase absorption of light in visible region at λ > 420 nm [37].

Figure 8.

Nitridation of ZnOHF nanobundles resulting in the formation of N-doped ZnO with similar morphology, showing high absorption to visible region.

Formation of the N-doped ZnO mesoporous nanospheres is an example of use of solvothermal treatment of Zn (NO3)2.6H2O which is the source of both Zn and nitrogen, in the presence of oleic acid, oleylamine, and octadecene. Mixture was heated at 260°C for 20 min and cooled at room temperature for 2 h followed by centrifugation, washing of precipitate and calcination at 400°C for 2 h led to the production of mesoporous nanospheres having size between 100–300 nm. This structure had the higher photoactivity as compared to pristine ZnO ([38]). The nitrogen doped silver deposited ZnO thin films have been successfully prepared on a glass substrate by Kumar et al. via Radio frequency (RF) magnetron sputtering for the degradation of 2-CP under the visible light irradiation λ 390–700 nm and resulted in production of mineralized products as in Figures 9 and 10 [39].

Figure 9.

Photocatalytic degradation of 2-CP on ZnO-based thin films under visible light irradiation [39].

Figure 10.

Illustration of formation of e/h+ pair and degradation of 2-CP by the N-Ag/ZnO thin films [39].

Nitrogen doped ZnO films were prepared by chemical vapour deposition (CVD) process using metallic zinc, NO2 and NH3 as precursors. The nitrogen concentration was varied while the temperature was kept constant at 350°C. The gradual addition of dopant to ZnO films led to the formation of stable nitrogen vacancies clusters and n-type defects, the stability of vacancies is the beauty of this process because the vacancies formed by addition of other impurities are easily removable [40]. Other techniques for the production of N-ZnO films on glass substrate, like high vacuum plasma-assisted chemical vapour deposition (HVP-CVD) [41] and pulsed-filtered cathodic vacuum arc deposition (PFCVAD) [42] have been reported. In both techniques, N2 or N2O was used as doping agents and as the dopant quantity was increased the semiconductor changed from n-type to p-type while the stability of p-type was dependent upon the synthesis process. Surprisingly the films synthesized by the PFCVAD process maintained their p-type doping for 12 months.

In literature, in addition to the doping of TiO2 with nitrogen, there are studies which have reported the carbon doped TiO2 as visible light photocatalyst. In contrast to the nitrogen doped TiO2 which is commonly present in substitutional form, the carbon is doped to TiO2 in different ways depending on the doping process, the three possible ways for carbon addition to lattice are (i) replacement of lattice oxygen with carbon; (ii) replacement of Ti atom with carbon atom; (iii) addition of carbon at interstitial position. Due to relatively smaller size of C atom, third one can occur without creating too much strain in structure [43]. The green synthesis for the C-doped TiO2 has been described by using Ti (SO4)2 and sucrose as the precursors for Ti and carbon. This hydrothermal method is adoptable due to its low cost, nontoxic and easiness to perform, the C-TiO2 was prepared by hydrothermal method and post-thermal treatment was applied at different temperatures and this was found to be effective to promote the visible light activity of C-TiO2 for the degradation of toluene [44]. C-doped TiO2 material have been prepared by the oxidation of titanium carbide (TiC) coated multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs). The MWCNTs were used as a reaction template and carbon source, and titanium powder as the titanium source. XPS results indicated that chemical structure of Ti in TiO2 coated-MWCNTs was different from that of pristine anatase due to the formation of Ti-O-C strong bond and interaction between TiO2-MWCNT (Figure 11). The photocatalytic activity of this material was tested for the degradation of methylene blue under visible light [45].

Figure 11.

Proposed mechanism of enhanced physical light activity of MWCNTs-TiO2 material [45].

Carbon doped TiO2 has been reported to improve its VL response and photocatalytic activity and has been shown to be more effective than nitrogen doping. C-doped TiO2 nanomaterials were prepared by the oxidative annealing of titanium (IV) carbide, used as a precursor. XPS analysis revealed that the carbon in the sample was present as carbonate species. The nanopowders were used for the degradation of methylene blue in the aqueous solution and for anti-bactericidal activity of E. coli k-12 and 80% inactivation in 30 min was observed [46].

Sulfur can also be used as a promising dopant to enhance the visible light activity despite of its difficulty to doping due to its large ionic radius. Sulfur-doped TiO2 was prepared by using thiourea and titanium (IV) isopropoxide as precursors followed by mixing and vigorous stirring in ethanol resulted in the production of white powder annealed at 450°C for 4 h, the resulting material was S-doped TiO2. These powders gave degradation of quinoline at λ = 495 nm [47]. S-doped material can be produced by the oxidation heating of TiS2 powder followed by the annealing at 300°C, the XRD and XPS patterns gave the results which confirmed that the S atoms doped into the substitutional site of TiO2 (e.g., the substitution of S for O) are effective for the band gap narrowing. Moreover, band calculations showed that the band gap narrowing due to the S doping originates from mixing the S 3p states with VB, leading to an increase in the VB width [48].

Incorporation of S to ZnO is little difficult due to its low solubility in ZnO and separation of ZnS particles at high temperatures. To overcome this problem, homogenously mixed precursors should be treated at low temperature. Formation of sulfur-doped ZnO films have been reported by pulse laser deposition [49], reactive sputtering ([50]) and chemical spray pyrolysis [51]. S-ZnO films are more appropriate for the uses in electronics, sensors and photoelectrochemical cells. But for the photocatalytic processes, S-ZnO powders give better results than films. Patil et al. [52] has proposed a method to make S-ZnO by a novel two steps process. First was the formation of bis-thiourea zinc oxalate (BTZO) powders by a mechanochemical method followed by its thermal decomposition/annealing at different temperatures to produce S-ZnO. At lower temperatures the resulting product was ZnS but as the temperature rose to 600°C the product was S-ZnO. The prepared powder was used to degrade the resorcinol under visible light and complete photocatalytic degradation (PCD) of 150 ppm resorcinol was observed in 7 h of light exposure at pH 7 [52]. ZnO has also been reported to be doped with iodine by following a solvothermal method using zinc salts and iodic acids in polyol medium as precursors with heating at 160°C. XRD and EDX analysis proved the presence of I in ZnO lattice. I doping increased the visible light absorbance, i.e., λ > 510 nm. In addition to the change in absorption spectra, it was proposed that doped I could act as the electron trapping sites thus reducing the chances for recombination [53].

To enhance the absorption in visible spectrum, P doping to TiO2 has been reported using titanium isopropoxide and phosphide and H3PO4 as precursors. The content of P-TiO2 had different properties prepared from two different precursors (Phosphide and H3PO4). A clear red shift in the absorption was observed due to the substitutional position of P3− for oxygen in lattice. The presence of P3− was confirmed by XPS analysis, the ion-doped product gave 4-CP and acetaldehyde degradation under pure visible light at λ 410–440 nm [54].

Graphitic carbon nitride (g-C3N4) is a polymeric semiconductor, in order to increase its visible light activity and to reduce band gap it is doping with phosphorous has been reported. Ligang et al. prepared P-doped g-C3N4 by one pot green synthesis approach using dicyandiamide and phosphorous containing ionic liquid as precursors. The prepared particles were characterized and analysed and were used for the degradation of organic dyes like Rhodamine B and Methyle Orange under visible light. The photoactivity of particles was dependent on the post annealing temperature, doped particles gave higher photocatalytic activity as compared to pure g-C3N4, and degraded 95% of pollutants for the irradiation time of 180 min [55]. Chai et al. has also reported the degradation of dye by using P-doped gCN under visible light, synthesized by co-pyrolsis method, analysis like XRD, SEM, FESEM, XPS and FTIR were performed to check crystalline, morphological, structural and optical properties of catalyst. Prepared catalyst gave greater photocatalytic activity by substituting P atoms with C resulted in enhanced light harvesting phenomenon as it degraded 95% of dye in 30 min, additionally radical scavenging test unveiled that holes and superoxide radicals were dominant reactive species [56]. Sulfur-doped gCN porous rods were prepared in one pot by a simple pyrolysis method of melamine-trithiocyanuric acid at different temperatures, analysis confirmed the formation of porous rods with high surface area than that of pure gCN, surface area increased with increasing temperature, as prepared catalyst gave higher photocatalytic activity and increased absorption of light in visible region and gave 92% of rhB degradation within 50 min [57]. g-C3N4 has also been reported to be doped with boron [58] and carbon atoms [59], to enhance the photocatalytic activity under visible light.

Some other non-metals like fluorine, bromine, and oxygen have also been reported to dope SCs to enhance the photocatalytic property. Doping of different type of dopant into the lattice structure of some other semiconductors like Ta2O5, Nb2O5, BiVO4, InVO4, Bi2WO6, La2Ti2O7, H2Ti4O9, NaTaO3, Nb2O5,V2O5, Sb2O3, Bi2O3, Fe2O3, NiO, ZrO2, CeO2, Ga2O3, CuO, Cu2O, HNb3O8, WO3, ZnO, K2La2Ti3O10, K2Ti4O9, BiMoO6 and TiO2 have been reported. Some doped SCs with their water treating abilities is given in Table 1. Among the above mentioned semiconductors some have the large band gaps and show excitation under the UV irradiation only, like ZrO2 has the band gap of 5 eV and Ga2O3 have band gap of 4.8 eV needs the excitation energy of 248–265 nm, while some SCs like WO3 and venedates have small band gaps but they are doped in order to enhance the quantum efficiency of the process. However, dependant on their synthetic approaches and crystalline structures some metal oxides have shown the degradation activity of organic and inorganic compounds under visible light [95].

Pristine photocatalystNon-metal dopantDoping processTarget pollutant for visible light induced degradationReferences
TiO2NitrogenColloidal solution hydrolysisMethylene blue[60]
DC sputtering and oxidationRhodamine B[61]
Hydrothermal treatment2-propanol[62]
Sol-gel, hydrothermal and pyrolysisMicrocystin-LR[63]
Thermal decomposition, one-step synthesisMO degradation[64]
Microemulsion-hydrothermal method2,4-dichlorophenol[65]
N-PSol-gel method4-Chlorophenol[66]
Boron (F-B-S tri-doped)Solvation/evaporation/sol-gel synthesisAcid napthol red (ANR)[67]
C-SSolvation/evaporationToluene, 2-methlypyridine and MO, E. coli sterilization[69, 70, 71]
[72, 73, 74]
C-N-STi2CN calcination/sol-gelReactive brilliant red X-3B, Tetracycline[75, 76]
SrTiO3NSolvothermal/Sol-gelMO, MB, RhB[78]
ZrW2O8SHydrothermal/CalcinationO2 Evolution[81]
IHydrothermalRhB[82, 83]
Bi2WO6FHydrothermal HFMB[84]
ZnONDecomposition reaction of Zn nitrateMO[85]
HNb3O8-SiO2NSSR ureaRhB[86]
WO3NThermal decomposition in NH3MeOH Oxidation, MO oxidation[87, 88]
FHydrothermalrhB degradation Phenol[89, 90]
BiVO4SAqueous thioureaMB[91]
LaCoO3CSol-gel processCO2 reduction[92]
In2Ga2ZnO7NSSRH2 Production[93]
Ce3O4FPE-CVDH2 production[94]

Table 1.

Visible light active non-metal doped photocatalysts.

2.3 Grafting of semiconductors by co-doping

2.3.1 Non-metal co-doping

Photocatalysts are not only doped with single non-metal, they can also be doped with more than one or two non-metals resulting to co-doping. A lot of work has been reported on this phenomenon in order to enhance the photocatalytic behaviour of SC. For example, N-C co-doped TiO2 has been reported, being P25 as titanium dioxide source, ammonia as a nitrogen source and different types of alcohols as carbon precursors by using one step hydrothermal method. The mixture was placed at 100°C for 4 h. After thermal treatment, powder was cooled and dried for 24 h at 105°C, the obtained product was N-C doped TiO2. The physicochemical properties and photocatalytic activity of catalyst was tested by using phenol as a model contaminant, phenol decomposition by different prepared materials confirmed that activity of catalyst was increased with the chain length of the alcohol precursor, and photoactivity of material was also evaluated [96]. A unique structured photocatalyst, C-S doped TiO2 (TCS) was prepared by the hydrolysis of tetrabutyl titanate in a mixed aqueous solution of thiourea and urea followed by the stirring of solution at 12–24 h and water in mixture was dried at 80°C. Obtained precipitate was calcined at different temperatures, the obtained product was TCS. XPS analysis was performed which demonstrated Ti4+ ions were replaced by S4+ and carbonate ions. As prepared catalyst was used for the photodegradation of 4-chlororphenol under visible light (λ = 470 nm) [97]. Another example of C-S doped TiO2 which is nanoporous highly reactive catalyst as TiO2(C-TiO2) and TiO2 (S-TiO2) was prepared at room temperature without heat treatment by using sol-gel method. Under visible light irradiation doped material showed high degradation of dye about 99% in 70 min. The catalyst also showed the antibacterial activity about 95% of E. coli was killed within 180 min even after 10 cycles for use of S-TiO2 [98].

In addition to above mentioned non-metals, some halogens have also been reported for doping of TiO2 [99, 100]. An example for halogens doping is preparation of Cl-B co-doped nanocrystalline titanium dioxide by a hydrothermal method using TiCl4 as a titanium source and mixed hydrobromic acid (HBr) with ethanol as a bromine source, the doping of Cl and Br indicated narrowing of band gap and enhanced the photocatalytic activity for the overall water splitting process under visible light [101].

Microcystins (MCs) are the effective toxins which are produced and released by algae in the fresh and brackish waters upon cell rapture. Among dozens of congeners MC-LR is becoming a cause for disturbance to water quality and environment due to its concentration in water and high solubility and stability in water. Among many practices, N-F co-doped TiO2 has been reported to degrade it by the attack of OH on the toxic ADDA (3-Amino-9-methoxy-2,6,8-trimethyl-10-phenyldeca-4,6-dienoic acid) chain under the visible light, normally the destruction of ADDA chain eliminates the associated toxicity but this breakage requires UV light <280 nm, but in case of N-F co-doped TiO2 the production of free radicals due to photoexcitation, reductions and oxidations have reported to attack the ADDA and Mdha (Methyl-dehydroalanine group) chains and have resulted in the degradation of toxin and production of non-toxic intermediates and products [102].

Among titanates, co-doped K2TiO4, SrTiO3, La2Ti2O7, K2Ti4O9 have been reported. The Co-doping of SrTiO3 with carbon and sulfur has been reported. Co-doped product was produced by the calcination of mixture of thiourea and SrTiO3 powders in lidded crucible at different temperatures. The addition of C and Si were confirmed by FTIR, XRD, XPS analysis, the obtained powder had the enhanced absorption shift from 400 to 700 nm. Cationic sulfur and tetravalent carbon doping increased the oxidative degradation of 2-propanol under visible light at λ 440 nm [77].

Nisar et al. [103] investigated the increased efficiency of BiTaO4 by non-metal mono and co-doping in order to enhance its visible light activity. This SC has the band gap of 2.75 eV but it has ability to absorb only 19% of the visible light. Nitrogen doping to lattice created an electron acceptor state just above the VB in order to increase VBM. The lattice was co-doped with carbon and sulfur and after doping it was compared with the bulk. It was analysed that C-S doping led to the notable band gap reduction about 39% which was very close to the required band gap for a good photocatalytic material. The doped material had good overall water splitting ability [103]. Recently, co-doping of CeO2 with Carbon and nitrogen has been reported to enhance its visible light photocatalytic activity. Analysis and calculations revealed the addition of non-metals in the lattice. C-N co-doping shifts the fermi level at the bottom of conduction band by creating impurities in the lattice followed by the increased absorption of light under visible region. The surprising fact about this catalyst was its absorption intensity between 400 and 600 nm was very high as compared to other co-doped and N-doped CeO2 and C-doped CeO2 [104].

2.3.2 Non-metal-metal co-doping

To enhance the photocatalytic activity of semiconductors, co-doping with metal and non-metals has also been reported. In case of TiO2, Bagwasi et al. has reported the synthesis, characterization and application of Bi-B-TiO2 nanoparticles. The co-doped nanoparticles were prepared by sol-gel method. Results indicated the bismuth and boron were doped in TiO2 lattice, as Bi substituted Ti as Bi3+ which reduced the rate of recombination and B was present as interstitial and substitutional B which enhanced the visible light absorption. Bi-B co-doped samples showed better activities for degradation of acid orange 7 (AO7) and 2,4-dichlorophenol under visible light (λ = 700 nm) irradiation [105].

TiO2 is also co-doped with boron and nickel in the form of its oxide. As mentioned in Figure 12. The addition of boron at substitutional or interstitial position increases the response to visible spectra while the loading of Ni2O3 further enhanced its photocatalytic activity. TCP, 2,4-DCP and sodium benzoate were chosen as target pollutants. TCP was not only efficiently degraded under the visible light but also its was mineralized, moreover the degradation of other two pollutants was also same as of TCP [68].

Figure 12.

Schematic illustration of positions of non-metals as dopants in the TiO2 lattice. The effect of electronic structure of replacing O with B, C, N and F at substitutional and interstitial positions is considered; (a) doping of B, C and N atoms at substitutional positions results in magnetic impurities whose energy levels fall in the mid of energy gap. B sits high in the bandgap and N produces a state just above the VB while F being very electronegative occupies the state below O2P of VB resulting the formation of TiO3+ ions; (b) at interstitial position, B behaves as a donor with the formation of B3+ and Ti3+, carbon donates only two electrons and forma C2+, nitrogen forms bond with O in lattice and does not donate electrons to host atom [106].

Doping of NaNbO3 powders with Cr-N and Mo-N has been studied by using hybrid density functional theory. Co-doping with two pairs of metal/non-metal was tested separately to check the enhanced visible light activity of doped NaNbO3. Metal atoms (Mo or Cr) replaced the Nb from the lattice while the O was replaced by nearest Nitrogen atom. Analysis and calculations revealed that monodoping of different dopants and co doping of Cr-N are inappropriate for photocatalytic decomposition of water under visible light because the defects formed due to dopants are above the fermi level so they cannot act as charge trapping sites thus resulting to increased rate of recombination. While, the co-doping of Mo-N proved to be an appropriate dopant as it reduced the band gap by creating different energy levels. Whereas the band gap reduction is dependent on the concentration of dopant material. Mo-N doped NaNbO3 have overall enhanced water splitting ability and a promising photocatalyst for pollutant degradation ([107]).

2.4 Metal doping

Doping in the semiconductors mostly become a reason to point defects which introduces the levels or states near, above or below the valence and conduction bands which are identified and calculated by different analysis. When the metal is incorporated in a lattice, it is doped in the form of metal ion which produces a band or energy level in the forbidden energy area thus rendering the photocatalyst able to absorb visible light irradiation. Additionally, doped metal in the form of metal ion can change the equilibrium concentration of charge carriers by acting as an electron acceptor. Thus, increasing the overall quantum efficiency of the photocatalytic process [108]. The doping of semiconductors with metals/metallic ions has also been investigated in recent decades using many procedures including sol-gel, hydrothermal, solvothermal processes, etc. (as discussed earlier). Photocatalysts can be doped with transition metals like Fe, Cr, Mn, W, Ru, Rh, low cost, non-noble transition and earth abundant metals like Co, Cu, Ni and the noble metals like Pt, Au and Ag.

Preparation of iron doped TiO2 thin films for the photocatalytic degradation of Rhodamine B has been reported by using reactive magnetron sputtering method having microscope slide as substrate and 99.99% pure TiO2 as target and thin film was prepared by fixing pressure and flow rate. During the preparation of TiO2 thin films, 99.9% iron pieces was placed on TiO2 target to produce the doped plate the color of titanium dioxide film changed from light white to dark yellowish indicating the increasing concentration of iron. Analysis depicted as the concentration of Fe was increased, the wavelength of Fe-doped TiO2 shifted to red due to excitation of Fe3+ electron to the conduction band. As prepared doped film was tested for the photocatalytic activity in comparison with undoped thin film and the degradation of rhB was observed under visible light on the doped thin film. The photocatalytic degradation rates of rhB was decreased surprisingly on the highly Fe-doped TiO2 plates ([109]). Vanadium doped TiO2 was prepared by sol-gel method with the objective to increase visible light response of TiO2 having V4+ substituted at Ti4+ place in the lattice using vanadyl acetylacetonate, acetic acid and titanium butoxide as precursors followed by hydrolysis and calcination at 400°C. Analysis revealed that vanadium was highly dispersed inside the lattice and presented the red-shift, as prepared catalyst was used to degrade crystal violet (CV) and methylene blue (MB) under visible light irradiation which was higher than those of undoped powders [110].

Co-doping of N-doped TiO2 with metals like Sn and Zn for enhanced activity under visible has been investigated and it is emerging as a promising approach to increase the photocatalytic ability of semiconductors because of synergistic effects in visible light absorption. Zn and Sn was compared for photocatalytic activity by doping with N (N + Zn and N + Sn), having tetracycline as a target pollutant. Different analysis (XRPD, HRTEM, XPS, EDX, and BET) for different calculations revealed that Sn and Zn modification directed to morphological, structural and surface changes, Sn was substituted at Ti site while Zn changed the lattice morphology. It was also determined that catalysts shown different performances in terms of light absorption, as Sn modified sample gave slight red shift by formation of intra-gap states and shown the absorption of light in range of 400–600 nm while Zn modification reduced the band gap by showing detrimental effect to crystallinity and creating surface defects [111].

Radio frequency (RF) sputtering technique was used to deposit Ag and ZnO nanoparticle on a substrate at different temperatures on a fixed pressure. Ag and ZnO having high purity of 99.999% targets were used as depositing materials and three different thin films were prepared depending on the substrate temperatures as shown in Figure 13. Characterization and analysis revealed the equal distribution of Ag nanoparticles within ZnO matrix, the band gap of the prepared nanoparticles was ranging between 2.7 and 3.1 eV while the pure ZnO has band gap of 3.37 eV. Photocatalytic degradation of 2-CP was tested by using prepared thin films by varying experimental parameters, results determined the enhanced photocatalytic activity of Ag/ZnO as compared to pure ZnO, reason for enhanced photocatalytic activity was the presence of Ag at the surface of film which acted as scavenger for an excited electron. The film prepared at substrate having highest temperature presented stability even after 4 cycles with only 8.7% efficiency loss [112]. Yayapao et al. prepared the undoped and Nd-doped ZnO nanoneedles using ultrasonic assisted solution method by varying the percentages of doped metal. Nd-ZnO nanoneedles gave the best results for the concentration of 1% Nd which was 50 nm in diameter and 3–4 μm long, gave performance about 2.5 times more as compared to the undoped ZnO. Analysis determined the presence of doped Nd3+ ions in lattice, which during photocatalysis acted as an electron scavenger and inhibited the process of recombination and promoted the photocatalytic activity by production of O2•− [113].

Figure 13.

SEM images of Ag/ZnO thin film co-sputtered at different temperatures (a) Room temperature, (b) 50 C, (c) 100 C and (d) Pure ZnO [112].

Undoped and Ho-doped ZnO 3D microstructures were prepared using a sonochemical method having zinc nitrate hexahydrate (Zn(NO3)2·6H2O), holmium nitrate hexahydrate (Ho(NO3)3·6H2O) as precursors. The dopant concentration was varied from 0 to 3% after the sonication of 5 h the precipitate was washed and characterized. The flower like structure (Figure 14) gave the improved photocatalytic activity for the degradation of methylene blue (due to the production of non-selective oxidants) at λ 664 nm. The formation of Ho3+ ions at the dopant concentration of 3%, which acted as electron scavenger [114]. Similar positive results were reported by doping of La3+ and Sm3+ into ZnO lattice for the degradation of 4-nitrophenol in wastewater [115].

Figure 14.

SEM image of holmium doped ZnO microstructures with (a) 0%, (b) 1%, (c) 2% and (d) 3% of HO having100–400 nm diameter and length of several micrometers [114].

For Copper doped BiVO4, the monoclinic crystal lattice (mBiVO4) shown the efficient charge carrying capacity due to its smaller effective mass as compared to Ag and Au, which is promising for higher mobility of electrons and holes. In this system the substitution of Cu 3d states at the Bi sites reduces the band gap and also act as an electron acceptor produced by photoexcitation. This doped catalyst has shown the red shift which meant it enhanced the solar light absorbance and utilization, the system has overall great water splitting capacity [116].

Besides TiO2 and ZnO, WO3 is also a promising semiconductor found to degrade the pollutants in water due to its photocatalytic activity with the band gap of 2.8 eV. Despite of short band gap, it can absorb only small portion of visible light. The photocatalytic activity of WO3 was found to be amplified in the occurrence of dopant. WO3 was doped with different metal ions using different precursors, each precursor was mixed vigorously with WO3 to ensure the homogenous mixing followed by the drying and calcination for 4 h at 550°C, the final product was prepared after cooling and grounding of powder. Analysis confirmed the presence of different ions like Mg2+, Al3+, In3+, Fe3+, and Zr4+ on the interstitial positions in the WO3 lattice. Doped SC gave significance change in the photocatalytic property in comparison to pristine WO3 [117]. Palladium doped WO3 was used to remove Geosmin (GSM) from the wastewater. Nanocatalyst was prepared by mechanical mixing in a ceramic mortar having Pd and WO3 powder as a precursor, analysis revealed the size of Pd nanoparticles of about 10 nm which was dispersed evenly on the surface of WO3, the photocatalytic degradation was done by spiking of GSM and catalyst in a solution with water (Figure 15). Oxidative species analysis depicted that OH was dominant oxidative specie. Degradation rate in initial 5 min was 75% indicating higher degradation rate. While in next 20 min the degradation rate was more than 99%, as the amount was catalyst increased gradually. The degradation rate decreased mainly due to the accumulation/agglomeration of catalyst and turbid environment caused hindrance to light penetration. The stability of Pd-WO3 nanocatalyst was tested which retained 94% stability even after the fourth cycle which suggested its reusability for the GSM degradation [118].

Figure 15.

Photocatalytic degradation of GSM under VL using novel catalyst [118].

Electronic, geometric and optical properties of chromium doped SrTiO3 has been studied by Wei et al. by using DFT with GGA scheme. Results revealed that in Cr-doped SrTiO3 structure the VBs did not suffer from any change while the bottom of CB shown a little rise. Cr substituted in lattice at the site of Sr. as Cr3+ while band structure and DOS analysis shown that there were also some Cr 3d gap states appeared near the bottom of CB. While Cr substituted at the site of Ti4+ was doped as Cr6+. So the results indicated that doped chromium partially take up Sr. and partially Ti, Cr dopants at Cr-Sr site has higher photocatalytic activity as compared to the photoactivity at Cr-Ti dopants sites. Similarly the SrTiO3 doped with less concentrate on of dopant shown less photocatalytic activity and less absorption of visible light and vice versa [119].

Dysprosium doped WO3 nanopowders were prepared using Na2WO4·2H2O and CTAB as precursors followed by a hydrothermal treatment at 80°C for 1 week. The resulting precipitate was centrifuged and calcined to obtain Dy-doped material. Analysis revealed that metal was doped as Dy3+ which acted as an electron donor to the adsorbed O2 to make superoxide radical and Dy4+, dopant ion also reduced recombination rate by accepting the exciting electron and formed Dy3+, nanopowders showed high photocatalytic activity for the degradation of rohdamine B (rhB) which was used as target pollutant [120]. Gallium, a post transition metal has been shown to dope semiconductors. Li et al. have reported the increased charge separation and photocatalytic activity by Ga-doped SnO2 in different molar ratios varying from 1 to 4%, using SnCl4, Ga(NO3)3 and HNO3 as precursors followed by drying and baking at 573 K for 2 h. The resulting product was Ga-doped SnO2, analysis confirmed the presence of Ga as Ga3+ and shifted the absorption spectra towards blue region. To understand the charge separation, production of reactive species and photocatalytic efficiency methyl orange (MO) was used as a target pollutant, mainly due to the formation of OH MO was photocatalytically decolorized [121, 122].

Hu et al. reported the band gap-tunable K-doped g-C3N4 which had enhanced mineralization capacity, using dicyandiamide monomer and potassium hydrate as precursors followed by mixing, heating and annealing. SEM, TEM, FTIR, XRD and XPS analysis were used for the characterization and catalyst was used for the degradation of organic rhB under visible light and showed 6.5 times greater photocatalytic activity as compared to pristine gCN as it gave 70% decomposition during the irradiation time of 120 min [123]. Tungsten doped porous g-C3N4 was synthesized by hydrothermal method using urea, dicyandiamide and Na2WO4.2H2O as precursors and catalysts with varying molar ratios of precursors were prepared and the catalyst W5/PGCN (P stands for porous) gave the highest photocatalytic activity due to separation of charges and shown 99.6% degradation of MO under visible light (λ = 400–420 nm) for the irradiation time of 60 min and 100% in 70 min [124]. Beside W, other transition metals like Yttrium ([125]), Iron [126], Eu, Zr [17], etc. doped gCN for the increased photocatalytic activity has also been reported in literature.


3. Dye sensitized VLA semiconductors

Dye photosensitizations have been reported by different scientists being a most operative mode to increase the response of semiconductors for visible light. Sensitization has been used for different approaches, from development of solar cells to degradation of pollutants in water. Many dyes like erythrosine B, eosin, rose bengal, rhodamine B, cresyl violet, thionine, chlorophyllin, anthracene-9-carboxylic acid, porphyrins, phthalocyanines and carbocyanines have been reported for their work as sensitizers, in addition to these organic dyes some inorganic dyes and coordination metal complexes are also reported. Inorganic sensitizers are basically the semiconductors with smaller band gap which are highly stable to photodegradation or photocorrosion. Their smaller band gap gives the light absorption at the wider wavelength region and examples are Mn, Fe, Ni, V, and Cr [127]. The principle of sensitization for photodegradation of pollutants is “an electron in a sensitizer molecule under visible light (as dyes have conjugate system that absorbs visible light) is excited (from HOMO to LUMO) to its conduction band from where it jumps quickly to the conduction band of attached semiconductor oxide and dye itself changed into its cationic radical and SC’s CB act as an electron mediator where it is accepted by oxygen, thus starting the oxidations reactions by forming superoxide and OOH, which are then converted to OH for the degradation of pollutants”[12]. A main limitation/drawback of sensitization with an organic dye is its steady decomposition because of photocatalytic degradation due to its natural capacity to undergo redox reactions by donating its electrons, to dodge this limitation the addition of sacrificial electron donor is possible like the incorporation of EDTA and TEOA (triethanolamine) will improve the stability of dye. In a dye sensitized process the dye can be used as both a sensitizer or a substrate to be degraded in order to decolorize water [128]. The general mechanism for dye sensitized process for example rhB is given as:

rhBads+hv554nmrhBexcitation ofdyeelectronE11
rhB+SCrhB.++SCecbelectron3transfer toSCE12
SCecb+O2O2.+SCecbelectron acceptanceE13
rhB.++O2.CO2+H2Omineralization processE14

Many organic dyes have been tested for their excellent sensitizing ability to semiconductors like TiO2. Degradation of phenylurea herbicide monuron has been reported by using riboflavin-assisted photosensitization, an enhanced photodegradation effect was observed as compared to direct photolysis [129], degradation of micosporine like amino acids (small secondary metabolites produced by organisms that live in environments with high volumes of sunlight, usually marine environments by some type of algae) was observed by using rose bengal and riboflavin sensitizers [130]. Degradation of dye named reactive red 198 has been reported under visible light irradiation by using dye sensitized TiO2 activated by ultrasound, degradation rates were analysed by varying experimental parameters like initial concentration, pH and catalyst loading, the singlet oxygen and superoxide radical were found as dominant oxidative species which also degraded the produced intermediates like phenols. The results determined that a conventional dye can be used as a photosensitizer of TiO2 functioning under visible light [131]. A study investigated the application of TiO2 sensitized by tris(4,4′-dicarboxy-2,2′-bipyridyl) ruthenium(II) complex for CCl4 deprivation under visible light irradiation. The transferred electrons to the CB of TiO2 from the excited complex molecule decomposed CCl4 at λ > 420 nm, experiment in the absence of TiO2 revealed that there was no direct transfer between excited sensitizer complex molecule and pollutant, results also determined that sensitizing complex undergo redox reaction and photodegradation decreased in the absence of sacrificial electron donor which restore the RuII complex which undergo continuous oxidations by electron transfer, to avoid this problem different types of alcohols can be used but 2-propanol was used for RuIIL3/TiO2/CCl4, in this process CCl4 was decomposed in CCl3 and Cl. [132].


4. Heterostructures/heterojunctions/nano-composites

Construction of heterojunctions or nanocomposites is a method to increase the charge separation and to increase the absorption towards visible light region in the solar spectrum. As discussed above, the increased charge separation will reduce recombination resulting in increased production of reactive oxidizing species leading to enhanced degradation of contaminants in water and wastewater treatment. The crystal lattice structure at the point of interface or junction plays an important role in tailoring the photocatalytic properties or quantum efficiency of the photocatalyst. A difference in the lattice spacing of two SC crystals cause the lattice mismatch at junction point which is the reason for defects formation which act as excited electron sink and lessens the electron hole fusion [133]. Careful selection of semiconductor material is required with respect to band edge positions. The band edge positions of widely used semiconductors are given in Figure 16. The traits for ideal nano-heterostructures which have to be used for photocatalytic processes are; (i) it should have large surface area and contain enough active sites; (ii) it should have high light absorption capacity to make efficient use of solar spectrum; (iii) there should be an effective separation of charge carriers in order to produce active radicals for pollutant degradation; while a co-catalyst in heterostructure should have ability to enhance the reaction rate, provide active sites and should act as electron scavengers [134]. Due to their increasing demand for the degradation of pollutants controllable fabrication of heterostructures/nano-composites is possible, the different techniques which are being used over decades are chemical vapor deposition, chemical deposition, electrodeposition, etc. By using these techniques different types of heterostructures (capped and coupled) such as nano-composites, nano-rods, nano-sheets, nano-wires and core-shells (capped) structures have been reported. In comparison to single/alone SC the heterojunctions like CdS/TiO2, CdS/ZnO, ZnSe/ZnO, ZnS/ZnO, SnO2/CdS, Bi2S3/TiO2 and some ternary composites like Fe3O4/SiO2/TiO2, ZnO/TiO2/CuO, etc. have been reported.

Figure 16.

Band gaps of different semiconductors with respect to NHE [17].

The heterojunction which are made by the combination of two or more nanocystalline semiconductors are very fruitful for photocatalysis regarding pollutant degradation and water splitting and being very famous as the Z-scheme process. Two main benefits of linking two or more semiconductors are (i) coupling of semiconductor having larger band gap with the semiconductor having smaller one, amplifies the photo response acting as a sensitizer; (ii) recombination is avoided by the transfer of excited electron in the low lying CB of SC bearing larger band gap [135]. So, it is crucial to find a suitable sensitizer for a semiconductor having larger band gap to get enhanced photocatalytic activity under visible light.

4.1 Some TiO2-based heterostructures/nanocomposites

CdS is an attractive semiconductor with a smaller band gap of 2.4 eV, which means it can be activated under visible irradiation. The drawback to this and some other semiconductors having smaller band gaps is their unstability against photocorrosion. To avoid this problem, this type of semiconductors are coupled with those which have larger band gap like ZnO, ZrO2, TiO2, etc. and play a vital role in improving charge separation. As mentioned above there are many strategies to prepare the heterostructures and one is micro-emulsion method. CdS nanoparticles were coupled with TiO2 via micro-emulsion method under ultrasonic irradiation for the formation of core-shell type of nanostructure with uniformed coating of TiO2 nanoparticles on CdS, the depth of TiO2 shell was in range from 1.4 to 2.3 nm which could be controlled by varying the preparation temperature and precursors concentration. The nanostructure gave the red-shift in spectra which is typical trait of core-shell heterojunction [136]. Another TiO2/CdS core-shell nano-rod heterostructure was obtained by chemical bath deposition method, TiO2 core was prepared firstly by the hydrothermal method and was converted to substrate for the deposition of CdS nanoparticles by dipping it an aqueous bath having 10 ml 0.02 M CdCl2.2.5H2O, 10 ml 0.2 M CH4N2S, 10 ml of 1.5 M NH4NO3 and 10 ml 0.5 M KOH to adsorb CdS nanoparticles on TiO2 rod at 85°C. The resulting structure gave the highest charge separation (Figure 17) efficiency at incident wavelength of 500 nm [137].

Figure 17.

Scheme illustrating charge injection from excited CdS nanoparticles to TiO2 rod [137].

A thin film heterostructure of copper zinc tin sulfide (Cu2ZnSnS4)-TiO2 was prepared by combining an n-type (TiO2) and p-type (CZTS) heterostructure. To confirm the formation of visible light active photocatalyst it is suggested that the highly stable semiconductor with higher band gap like TiO2 should be present at most upper/outer layer in the heterostructure which will protect the semiconductors having smaller band gap to come in direct contact with wastewater/water in order to avoid physical or chemical reactions and to absorb penetrated light. In the present study the thickness of outer layers of TiO2 was varied by changing the concentration of precursor (TiCl4 0.1 and 0.05 M) and two types of catalysts also tested for photoactivity, uniform crystallinity depended on the thickness of the TiO2 film. The schematic illustration of photodegradation mechanism is given in Figure 18. Analysis like TEM, SEM and EDX discovered the presence of multiple TiO2 aggregates on the surface of CZTS thin films which have band gap of 1.46 eV. The catalyst prepared from 0.05 M solution exhibited poor Cu and enhanced Zn deposition which led to enhanced charge separation in the composite. Methylene blue dye was degraded under visible light by 0.1 M sample and shown efficiency of 43.50% while 0.05 M sample gave 35.7% removal under wavelength of 400–700 nm. In dark conditions TiO2-CZTS of 0.05 M gave efficiency of 29.81% after 8 h [138].

Figure 18.

Schematic illustration of charge separation in thin-film heterostructure; visible light passes through the upper layer of TiO2 and penetrated in lower CZTS thin film electrons gets excited and transferred to the CB of TiO2 creating and leaving the hole behind; electron in the VB of TiO2 gets excited after exposure to UV light and hole produced diffuses to the VB of CZTS thus completing the circuit, while the holes at the VBs act as oxidants and electrons in CBs act as reductants to produce oxidizing species [138].

Recently, the preparation of magnetic core-shell-shell heterostructure nanocomposite of Fe3O4/SiO2/TiO2 has been reported for the degradation of 2-CP in unreal wastewater under UV irradiation. Catalyst was prepared by three steps-facile synthesis process. Analysis was performed for surface morphology, chemical properties and for crystal structure. The size of NPs of magnetic core was 24.0 nm and that of magnetic shell-shell was 70.2 nm. Experiments were performed by varying the experimental parameters like pH, catalyst loading and pollutant concentration; results determined that effective degradation was pH dependant. Catalyst was regenerated after use by placing magnet under reaction container and retained its efficiency about 60% even after 3 cycles of use [139].

Another example of heterojunction is coupling of Ag3PO4 with TiO2 to degrade the organic pollutants under visible light irradiation using silver nitrate, sodium phosphate and TiO2 Degussa (P25) as precursors followed by in-situ precipitation method, by coupling the semiconductors the band gap reduced to 2.3–2.5 eV and shown a notable shift from UV region to visible spectra. Analysis confirmed the size of particles and uniform crystallinity 2-CP was selected as the target pollutant because this parent compounds and derivatives are being an emerging pollutant and already in the POPs. Experiments were performed by changing the parameters like pH, catalyst loading and pollutant concentration. At low pH of 3 greater adsorption of pollutant was observed and maximum degradation was reported. The structure maintained its stability to 100% (Figure 19) even after 3 cycles of use with fresh 2-CP [112].

Figure 19.

Retained catalytic stability even after 3 cycles of use with fresh 2-CP [112].

Pan et al. has reported a novel structure of TiO2-ZnO nanocomposite spheres decorated with ZnO, this structure was prepared in order to increase the photocatalytic activity by improving charge separation in heterostructure. The composite was prepared by one-pot solvothermal method using tributyl titanate and zinc acetate as precursors and heating the mixed solution at 150°C for 24 h followed by calcination in air, as-prepared product was characterized. Surprisingly, by increasing to amount of Zn precursor the clusters of ZnO were produced on the surface of spheres (Figure 20). Analysis determined that prepared ZnO and TiO2 had the particle size in spheres was about 4 nm and spheres’ surface thickness was about 5 nm. It was also discovered that the clusters which decorated the spheres only had Zn and O and did not have Ti atoms. PL spectra for composite indicated the increased charge transfer and separation as compared to pristine ZnO and TiO2 due to presence of ZnO clusters acting as electron scavengers. To investigate the photocatalytic performance of ZnO-TiO2-SC rohdamine B (rhB) degradation was tested, OH were reported to be the reactive specie, the activity of ZnO-TiO2-SC for photodegradation was 2.3–2.8 times higher than that of pristine nanoparticles [140].

Figure 20.

SEM image of TiO2-ZnO-SC, showing the decorated clusters of ZnO on the TiO2-ZnO nanocomposite [140].

Stable preparation of core/shell nanocomposite of TiO2/FeS2 by solvothermal method has been reported for the photocatalytic production of hydrogen [141]. The benefits for incorporating different metal oxides/sulfides led to the structural and chemical modifications which render them better than that of parent materials. Rashid et al. has reported the formation of stable spherical nanocrystals of anatase-TiO2/FeS2 by following wet chemical process, for the degradation of organic pollutants under visible light using FeSO4.7H2O, Na2S2O3 and TiCl4 as precursors. Micrographs and other analysis determined the morphology, chemical properties, crystal structure, oxidation states and band gap positions which was 2.67 eV for the composite and gave the red shift in spectra. The photocatalytic activity of FeS2 and TiO2 was tested alone and also for composite but the photoactivity of nanocrystal composite for the degradation of methylene blue, was much higher than that of pristine compounds. Experiments were performed by varying the parameters like pH, catalyst dose and pollutant concentration. Composite was found to be much stable as it shown only 9% loss in photocatalytic activity after 3 cycles of use [142].

Among venedates, bismuth vanadate and indium vanadate have gained much respect mainly due to stability, nontoxicity and photocatalytic activity under visible light (λ > 420 nm) in coupled or single conditions. For coupled semiconductor heterostructure of TiO2/InVO4, InVO4 was prepared using organic precursor method and was incorporated with TiO2 by grinding, the catalyst shown higher photocatalytic degradation of 2-CP under visible light as compared to TiO2 alone. Among different conditions the best condition for degradation were found at 5pH in 1 g/L of catalyst and 50 mg/L of pollutant with irradiation time of 180 min [143, 144]. Li et al. has reported the unique structure of TiO2 incorporated on the polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) nanofibers for the degradation of pollutants under the UV irradiation. The TiO2 nanoparticles were supported on fibers by the hydrothermal treatment at 135°C for 8 h using titanium n-butoxide and PMMA nanofibers as precursors. Analysis indicated that about 42% of tetragonal anatase TiO2 particles were adsorbed on the surface of fibers (Figure 21). Methylene orange was used as model pollutant and its complete degradation was observed after 50 min using 0.1 g of catalyst for 10 mg/L of pollutant. This good photocatalytic activity could be attributed to the (i) decoration of TiO2 nanoparticles on the PMMA fibers which assisted the adsorption of pollutants and helped them to come in contact with photocatalyst; (ii) high quantity of adsorbed TiO2 provides numerous action sites for the degradation of pollutants. Catalyst revealed the efficiency of about 94.4% even at the end of fifth cycle for the degradation of fresh MO which determined the stability and reusability of catalyst [145].

Figure 21.

Schematic illustration of formation of PMMA fibers and their photoactivity [145].

A novel nanocomposite of BiOBr/TiO2 has been reported and prepared for the first time with facile acid assisted precipitation method by using TTIP, KBr and ((BiNO3)3.5H2O) as precursors. Catalysts of different percentages were prepared by using different molar ratios of TiO2 as a base material and 15% BiOBr/TiO2 behaved as an active catalyst. Analysis and characterization revealed the perfect structural integrity, increased surface area and increased absorption of light because of the formation of nanoscale layered butterfly like clustal structures with each flake having the broad absorption spectrum of about 500–800 nm with <50 nm thickness (Figure 22). PL spectral analysis determined the band gap of 2.81 eV and wavelength was observed from 480 to 570 nm for 15% BiOBr/TiO2 and it gave the degradation of aqueous ciprofloxacin (target pollutant) under visible light at λ > 420 nm about 92.5% and under direct sunlight it gave 100% degradation utilizing reaction time of 2.5 h. Radical scavenging study indicated that besides superoxide radicals and holes the OH had dominant effect on net photodegradation process. Results also suggested that the catalyst was 9.4 and 5.2 times active in degradation than pristine BiOBr and TiO2, reusability experiments determined the high stability of catalyst as it suffered loss of only 12% even after 5 cycles of fresh CIP degradation [146].

Figure 22.

SEM images of (a, b) pristine BiOBr; and (c, d) 15%BiOBr/TiO2 nanocomposite.

4.2 Heterostructures/nanocomposites of different SCs

In addition to TiO2 there are numerous semiconductors which can be coupled with other SC and can be incorporated into heterostructures or composites like WO3, ZnO, BiVO4, ZnSe, C3N4, In2O3, CuS, MoS, Cu2O and many more. So another example of inorganic heterostructure is the template free simple synthesis of CdS-ZnO nanocomposites. This self-assembled flower like structure resulted from coupling of two SCs which increased the charge separation and demonstrated greater photocatalytic activity. The average size of flower was 400 nm with the petal size of 100–150 nm and the rod among petals had the size of 10 nm, band gap of composite was analyzed to be 2.19 eV and absorption wavelength of 561 nm was reported. The composite gave the photodegradation of rhB about 90% in 190 min under solar light and 24% in dark. The scheme of process of particles is shown in (Figure 23) [147].

Figure 23.

Structure of flower shaped nanocomposite and admirable charge transfer due to heterostructure formation [147].

Cho et al. prepared three different types of 3D ZnSe/ZnO heterostructures by simple solution-based surface modification reactions. Three different types of heterostructures demonstrated higher photocatalytic activities by exhibiting absorption in visible region (at λ > 486 nm) as compared to pure 3D ZnSe and ZnO structures, the visible light activity of heterostructures varied according to the crystal structures. As shown in (Figure 24) the CB of ZnO is in between the CB and VB of ZnSe showing the type II band alignment, before exposure to sunlight the catalysts and orange II (targeted pollutant) were kept at stirring for 30 min in dark to attain an equilibrium for adsorption and desorption, upon exposure to visible light the e/h+ pair was generated in ZnSe crystal, electron transferred to the CB of ZnO to reduce oxygen and holes could oxidize either the water or OH ion or directly oxidize the orange II, ended with the mineralization of organic compound [148].

Figure 24.

(a) SEM images of different 3D ZnO/ZnSe heterostructures and; (b) schematic diagram of charge separation by coupling of two SCs [148].

Zeyan et al. has produced the In2O3/ZnO heteronanostructures by the co-precipitation method having average size of 40–60 nm by using the respective precursors. The composite was annealed at different temperatures ranging from 600 to 1000°C, among changed compositions and annealing temperatures the highest photocatalytic activity for the degradation of methylene blue was shown by the composite annealed at 800°C with In/Zn molar ratio of 1:1 and the maximum absorption was about λ = 663 nm. A p-n junction was established at the SCs interface and presence of Zn2+ and In3+ was reported in lattice, that enhanced the charge separation and production of OH and O2•− attributed as the main reason for enhanced photocatalytic activity semiconductor coupling ([149]). Coupling of mixed oxide SC with metal oxide has also been reported and have shown some modified properties, example for this type of heterojunction is the nanocomposite of ZnO-ZnWO4 (both are the n-type SCs) prepared by the sol-gel method and was analysed by XRD, BET, SEM and TEM. The nanocomposites were prepared by varying the molar ratio of ZnO and ZnWO4 to study the influence of molarity on photoactivity and Zn-ZW0.25 calcined for 2 h at 600°C shown greater photodegradation of 4-nitrophenol (target pollutant). The band gaps for ZnO and ZnWO4 was calculated to be 3.21 and 3.14 eV, when the nanocomposite was exposed to UV light the electron transferred from the CB of ZnO (ECB = −0.36 eV) to CB of ZnWO4 (ECB = −0.14 eV) due to difference in the position of CBs (from cathodic to anodic condition) and same behaviour was proposed for hole to transfer from VB of ZnWO4 (EVB = 3.00 eV) to VB of ZnO (EVB = 2.84 eV), thus enhancing the charge separation and completion of circuit due to formation of heterostructures which resulted from the mixing of two SCs with dissimilar energy levels of VB and CB [150]. In addition to the above mentioned heterostructures other structures like nanorods, nano sheets, nanowires, CdSe/ZnO, CdsSe/ZnO [17], TiO2/ZnO [151], CuS/ZnO [152] has also been found to enhance visible light activity either for pollutant degradation, overall water splitting or hydrogen production.

BiOCl/BiVO4, another novel p-n heterostructure of coupled semiconductors with type II band alignment was prepared by hydrothermal method for the decomposition of methyl orange under visible light irradiation having ability for active separation of charges (Figure 25), the powders were prepared by using NH4VO3, Bi(NO3)3·5H2O, NaOH and HCl as precursors for BiVO4 and BiOCl, followed by the stirring, heating and washing. Catalysts having different molar concentrations were prepared by varying the amount of HCl in the mixture and the catalyst having the molar ratio of 0.75BiOCl/BiVO4 was seemed to be more active. Analysis and characterizations determined th-presence of Bi as Bi3+ and vanadium as V5+ and O as O2•− and Cl as Cl. For the tests of photocatalytic activity, Degussa P25 was used as control group, and results determined the increased degradation of MO in BiOCl/BiVO4 system and it was about 1.89 times greater than that of TiO2 and 3.54 times from BiVO4. Free radical scavengers illuminated that the holes in the valence band of p-type part of heterojunction played an important role in the direct oxidation of MO, OH were the dominant species and DO acted as electron acceptor from the CB. The stability of catalyst was tested and after the use of 5 cycles, it did not show any significant loss, which indicated the effectiveness and stability against photocorrosion [153]. Zhijie et al. has reported the fabrication of a novel nanocomposite of Bi2S3/Bi2WO6 by hydrothermal method to reduce the limitation of low photocatalytic ability of Bi2WO6 resulted from the potential relaxation of electron into hole. In this structure Bi2S3 acted as a sensitizer having the band gap of 1.3 eV and the system possessed the photoabsorption of 800 nm which meant it covered almost whole range of visible region. The equipped photocatalyst exhibited much enhanced photocatalytic activity for the degradation of phenol (a colorless pollutant) under visible light which was about 6.2 times greater than that of original Bi2WO6. Thanks to efficient charge separation for the enhanced photocatalytic activity resulted from the formation of heterojunction at the semiconductor interface [82, 83]. The heterostructure formed by mixing of graphene with BiFeO3 was prepared by one-pot hydrothermal method. The band gap of composite could be fabricated from 1.78 to 2.24 eV by changing the concentration of OH groups during the synthesis. Raman and XPS analysis revealed that the formation of Fe-O-C bonds enhanced the stability of composite. The increased photodegradation of Congo Red (CR) dye was observed in 2 h which increased from 40 to 71% due to the breakage of azo bonds and naphthalene rings at different wavelengths which can be due to the increased adsorption of CR on the graphene due to the infinite numbers of conjugated π-bond ([122]).

Figure 25.

Schematic illustration of effective charge separation between n- and p-type SC upon exposure to UV and Vis light [153].

WO3 is a known semiconductor due to its polycrystalline forms and smaller band gap of about 2.4–2.8 eV depending on crystal structure; which means its electrons can be excited by visible light irradiation, the main limitations of this SC which keep it far from becoming a useful semiconductor are; higher rate of recombination and its unstability against photocorrosion [154]. WO3 is incorporated in heterojunctions in order to increase the absorption in visible light region. Shamaila et al. has reported the formation of WO3/BiOCl heterojunction or the degradation of organic pollutants under visible light using BiCl3, Ammonium tungstate and ethanol as precursors, 2D nanoflakes of BiOCl of the size of 75–200 nm were fabricated (Figure 26) by following a new low temperature route and nanocomposite was prepared to enhance the visible light response, BiOCl performed the role of a main photocatalyst while WO3 worked as a sensitizer. For the prepared composite the absorption range increased from 360 to 500 nm as the quantity of WO3 increased while synthesis, the catalyst gave 100% deterioration of Rhodamine B was under visible light during the irradiation time of 180 min, which was greater than the activity of WO3, BiOCl and Degussa P25 [155].

Figure 26.

Composite synthesis route and proposed mechanism for photodegradation of rhB [155].

Another heterojunction photocatalyst with high photocatalytic activity is WO3/SrNb2O6, was prepared by the milling-annealing method which was found to be better than the direct mixing method as this method could build a firm chemically bonded interface between two semiconductors. Results determined that the composite had higher photocatalytic activity as compared to pure WO3 and SrNb2O6. As we know that anything which can scavenge the excited electron can be a reason for increased photocatalytic process so, the effective charge separation among semiconductors and formation of holes and radicals led to the direct or indirect degradation of methyl orange [156]. Ag3PO4/WO3 nanocomposites were prepared by a deposition-precipitation method using Na2WO4·2H2O, NH4Cl, AgNO3 and Na2HPO4 as precursors and prepared powders were characterized by SEM, XRD and UV-Vis. Catalysts were prepared of variable molar ratios of Ag3PO4:WO3 and the catalyst having ratio of 6:4 (AW6/4) shown the greater photocatalytic activity for the degradation of rhB and MO at the wavelength λ > 420 nm, mainly due to the excellent separation of charge carriers. Reusability tests indicated that composite had higher recyclability as compared to Ag3PO4 alone as AW6/4 gave 97% removal of rhB and MO in 6 and 35 min (after being exposed to visible light) even after the fifth run (had same efficiency for first run) while Ag3PO4 gave only 25% degradation at the fifth run due to the absence of sacrificial donor. Stability analysis revealed that catalyst AW6/4 was stable against photocorrosion as it retained the XRD pattern even after 5 cycles for degrading fresh rhB, only a small amount of metallic Silver was observed on Ag3PO4 after use, SEM analysis also supported stability result [157].

A hybrid photocatalyst W18O49/TiO2 having an urchin like structure (Figure 27) was prepared by an alcohol thermal method, which had high surface area of 178 m2 g−1 and shown absorption in the wide range of 200–800 nm and tested for the photodisintegration of MO and phenol under UV-visible irradiation. The hybrid photocatalyst attained synergetic increase in photoactivity and photostability of W18O49, well-related band structure enhanced the charge separation and transfer which led to the production of free radicals as well as prevented the W18O49 from self-oxidation due to holes as they moved towards TiO2. Free radical scavenging tests indicated that O2•− was reactive oxidizing specie for the degradation of MO and phenol. Reusability tests revealed the stability of catalyst as it maintained its XRD spectra even after the fifth cycle which meant catalyst did not suffer any noticeable loss, hybrid composite also maintained its original blue color at the end of fifth run [158].

Figure 27.

(a) SEM image of W18O49 (b) TEM image of W18O49 [158].

From metal tungstate an example of a p-n heterojunction is the fabrication of a novel Z-scheme WO3/CdWO4 photocatalyst by the fusion of sheet like WO3 (n-type) and rod like nanostructure of CdWO4 (p-type), for this purpose the catalyst were prepared separately by using respective precursors and fusion was done by using hydrothermal and chemisorption methods. As-prepared catalysts were used for the degradation of organic dyes like Methly orange, Rhodamine B and methylene blue, upon exposure of light the transfer of electrons and holes occurs from the CdWO4 to WO3 and vice versa which led to circuit completion and efficient increase in charge separation, PL spectra gave the smaller curve peak proving the less relaxation of electron towards VB and the absorption intensity of λ > 476 nm. Stability tests were performed to check the structural reliability of catalyst, it did not show any significant loss even after 3 cycles of reuse for the degradation of fresh dyes. Results also indicated the degradation of dye was about 7 and 2.3 times greater than CdWO4 and WO3 alone which was credited to enhanced surface area and effective separation of charge carriers [159].

In addition to the binary composites, some tertiary (complex) composites have been reported, where the multi-photon excitation took place in the photoactive materials and charge transfer and separation was increased due to increased surface area and different transition states. KTaO3-CdS-MoS2 is an example of tertiary composite which was prepared by hydrothermal method by rigorously following the temperature and pressure conditions, the obtained powders were of different structures like nanoleaf, cubic and hexagonal spheres exhibiting activity under both visible and UV light and were used for the degradation of toluene and phenol. The catalysts shown 42% degradation under visible light and 80% degradation of pollutants under UV light. Prepared catalyst exhibited good stability (about 50%) even after 4 cycles for the degradation of fresh toluene [160]. In case of some ternary composites like ZnO-AgBr-Ag2CrO4 (n-n junctions), two SCs worked as donors of photoexcited electrons and oxidation of pollutants occurred by the formation of superoxide radicals at the CB. By the charge separation the phocatalytic activity of composite was 16 and 7 times higher than those of ZnO and ZnO/AgBr for the degradation of rhB [161]. Rhodamine B also suffered degradation by the photocatalytic activity of In2O3-AgBr-BiWO6 (Figure 28), prepared by microwave assisted irradiation method, optical, morphological and structural properties were analysed by XRD, SEM, TEM, XPS, HRTEM which indicated the flower-like pattern of assembled nanoparticles. The increased photoactivity under UV, visible and solar light was attributed to increased surface area and charge separation due to differences in the redox potentials of SCs bands. Reactive species scavenging testes determined that OH and superoxide radicals were dominant reactive species [162].

Figure 28.

Proposed mechanism for the degradation of rhB on ternary composite [162].

Besides all of the above discussed heterostructures, nanocomposites, coupled semiconductors, either oxides or sulfides, there are numerous other heterojunctions like WO3/NiWO4 [163], Ag3PO4/Bi2MoO6 [164], Ag3PO4/AgBr [165], CdS/Bi2MoO6 [166], CdS/Ta2O5 [167], BiOBr/ZnFe2O4 [168], Cu2O/SrTiO3 ([169]), ZnS/CuS/CdS [170], SnO2/ZnO/ZnWO4 [171] and many more have been reported to increase the ability of pure SCs to harvest the sun light either in the field of water or wastewater treatment for the overall splitting of water, degradation of Organic, inorganic pollutants, phenols, MCs, POPs and other emerging contaminants.


5. A glance at g-C3N4-based heterostructures/nanocomposites

It has been more than a decade that people are being aware from environmental protection and conservation, the era of industrialization besides increasing the gross productivity also posed serious effects on the health of water bodies by discharging unchecked amounts of effluents and other chemicals, in order to improve the water quality the focuses are being paid to treat water and wastewater, the idea of semi-conductor photocatalysis has been emerged which uses solar energy in its full potential, for this purpose many SCs either in single or in heterostructures have been discussed in Section 6.

In addition to first generation photocatalysts, an emerging polymeric photocatalyst is Graphitic Carbon Nitride (g-C3N4) which is an earth copious visible light active catalyst, having unique 2D structure with high stability and flexible structure (which can be tailored) and low band gap of 2.7 eV. Pure gCN have high rate of recombination, smaller surface area and low ability to exploit visible light thus reducing the quantum efficiency of photosystem, the VL activity of gCN has been reported to increase by making heterostructures with other SCs by taking the advantage of its layered structure which assisted in hybridization with other constituents like CdS, TiO2, ZnWO4, ZnO, etc. either for the degradation of pollutants or for the evolution of O2 or H2 gas [172]. Some examples of gCN HSs/HJs/Composites are discussed below.

Novel g-C3N4/TiO2 composites were prepared by the facile sonication method using melamine and titanium tetrachloride as precursors followed by stirring, sonication and drying at room temperature. Different catalysts were prepared by varying the concentrations of precursors and g-C3N4/TiO2-1.5 was found to be more active among other catalysts, as it shown higher photocatalytic degradation of MB under UV and visible light. Results demonstrated that catalyst shown 6.92 and 2.65 time greater activity than pure gCN and TiO2 under UV light, while 9.27 (gCN) and 7.03 (TiO2) folds greater photoactivity under visible light, which can be attributed the increased visible light absorption and efficient charge transfer in composite at interfaces of SCs. In the hybrid catalyst gCN could be triggered under visible light and the photoexcited electrons of gCN transferred to the CB of TiO2 due to interfacial connections and differences of redox potentials [173]. Tunable band gap of some semiconductors is an effective way to harness solar light and among those gCN is a known SC. Two SCs having smaller band gaps (gCN and Bi2MoO6) were coupled to prepare a Z-scheme nanocomposite, number of catalysts were prepared by varying the concentrations of precursors and 25% g-C3N4/Bi2MoO6 was seemed to be most active, structure, morphology, light absorption spectra and charge carriers separation efficiency was analyzed and photocatalytic activities were evaluated for the degradation of MB. Both SCs in composite were excited at the λ = 410 nm, due to the negative redox potentials of gCN (as compared to Bi2MoO6), excited electrons of gCN transferred to CB of Bi2MoO6 and holes of later should had been migrated to the VB of gCN, but by this route the holes at the VB of gCN could not react with water of OH ion near its surface and same for Bi2MoO6, so it was observed that the excited electrons transferred to their respective CB, the relectrons from the CB of Bi2MoO6 were transferred to the VB of gCN (spatial separation) which inhibited the local recombination (Figure 29) thus completing the Z-scheme route, the CB of Bi2MoO6 and VB of gCN could not react with molecules in their vicinity and the catalyst shown 4.8 and 8.2 folds greater photoactivity than pristine SCs [174].

Figure 29.

Proposed mechanism of charge transfer in Z-scheme photocatalyst [174].

Feng et al. reported the fabrication of S-doped g-C3N4/Au/CdS composite as Z-scheme photocatalyst where CdS was deposited on g-CNS system in which Au nanoparticles were sandwiched between g-CNS and CdS (two visible light responsive SCs) by the chemical bath deposition and worked as charge transporter (Figure 30), whole system increased the degradation of rhB, MO, MB and increased reduction of water to hydrogen was observed under visible light (λ = 560 nm). The Z-scheme photocatalyst was characterized by SEM, HRTEM, PL spectra, Vis-diffuse spectra. These elementary, crystal and microcrystal analysis demonstrated the uniformity of novel composition, results revealed that the catalyst exhibited great photocatalytic activity as compared to g-CNS, g-CNS/Au, g-CNS/CdS, and pure CdS [175]. Novel organic-inorganic composite of g-C3N4-CdS has been prepared which gave the degradation of organic pollutants under visible light. Results indicated the higher photocatalytic activity of about 20.5 and 3.1 times for degradation of MO as compared to gCN and CdS alone and 41.6 and 2.7 times higher for the degradation of 4-aminobenzoic acid [176].

Figure 30.

Proposed mechanism of Z-scheme charge separation and transportation in g-CNS/Au/CdS [175].

GCN has also been reported to be composed with 2D graphene which is being focused due to its unique properties like amazing thermal, mechanical, surficial and electric properties. Tong et al. has prepared 3D porous gCN/graphene oxide aerogel structure by using gCN sheets and graphene oxide as precursors by following hydrothermal treatment method this composition resulted to enhanced visible light absorption, decreased charge relaxation and increased adsorption capacity. Analysis and characterizations were performed to check intrinsic properties. As-prepared catalyst was used for the CO2 evolution and MO degradation which was about 92% in 4 h under visible light [177]. Han et al. has reported different g-C3N4/graphene nanocomposites which were proved to be effective for the degradation of dyes under visible light, different hybrids of gCN/graphene were prepared by using different methodologies and synthesis processes like solvothermal treatment, hydrothermal treatment, electrochemical reactions, etc. and their photoactivity was investigated for the hydrogen, oxygen, CO2 evolution and degradation of different organic compounds [178].

Among ternary composites the novel magnetically recoverable composite of g-C3N4/Fe3O4/NiWO4 was prepared by refluxing calcination method, different hybrids were prepared by varying the precursor’s concentration among which gCN/Fe3O4/NiWO4 (30%) was found to be more active, catalysts were characterized for their morphology, texture, electronic, thermal and magnetic properties. Hybrid catalyst shown their high photocatalytic activity under visible light for the degradation of rhB, MO, MB, fuchsine and phenolic compounds. Results confirmed that formation of HJs between gCN/M/NiWO4 increased the surface area and charge separation (Figure 31), thus increasing the quantum efficiency of system, photocatalytic activity of gCN/M/NiWO4 (30%) was 12, 30, 52 and 6 folds greater for rhB, MB, MO, fuchsine and phenol as compared to gCN, Fe2O3 and NiWO4 alone. Additionally the prepared composites exhibited high degree of stability even after the 4 cycles of reusability as it degraded about 87% of rhB at fourth cycle, unluckily, nanohybrid suffered from reduced surface area after the last run which was attributed to the blockage of degradation reaction intermediates at surface sites [179]. Zhang et al. has used one-step solvothermal method for the preparation of spinel ZnFe2O4 nanoparticles and its decoration on g-C3N4 sheets for formation of water soluble magnetic-functionalized g-C3N4/ZnFe2O4. The magnetic properties of composite were controlled by the size of composite and decorated quantity of ZnFe2O4. Results indicated that catalyst exhibited efficient photocatalytic activity for degradation of MO under visible light and it was mainly due to the synergist effect of both SCs like smaller particle size and high solubility in water, interestingly the catalyst could be separated from aqueous solution by magnet. CN-ZnFe showed 98% of degradation of MO in 180 min which was 6.4 and 5.6 times higher than g-C3N4 and ZnFe2O4 alone. Free radical scavenging test revealed the decrease in efficiency indicated the vital role of OH and superoxide radical in the pollutant degradation. The increased photocatalytic activity was credited to sufficient charge separation ([180]). Synthesis of novel magnetic CdS/ZnFe2O4 nanocomposites has been reported (by two-step hydrothermal method) in order to enhance photocatalytic activity and photostability of SCs under visible region [181].

Figure 31.

Proposed mechanism of charge transfer in gCN/M/NiWO4 nanocomposites [179].

Heterojunctions of g-C3N4 with carbonaceous particles has been reported to make recyclable, stable and more efficient photocatalyst for the water treatment purposes. Chai et al. synthesized the g-C3N4 modified with fullerene for the removal of dyes from water under visible light. Fullerenes (C60) are known to have 30 molecular orbits with 60 π electrons with closed shell structure which helped in separation and transport of charge carriers, especially the photoexcited electrons. Because of the larger surface area and unique morphology, the electrons excited from g-C3N4 shifted on C60 thus got separated from hole and lessened the electron relaxation towards hole, the electron hole pair separation resulted in the opening of benzene ring during the process of organic molecule degradation [182, 183]. Bai et al. prepared g-C3N4/fullerene composite using thermal polymerization of dicyandiamide in the availability of C60 at 550°C. Addition of C60 in the gCN, shifted the VB of gCN at lower energy level thus its oxidation potential under visible light was increased. Figure 32 demonstrate the increased photocatalytic activity due to effective electron hole pair separation, when the catalyst was exposed to visible light electrons got excited from VB (formed by N2p orbitals) to CB (formed by 2Cp orbitals) of g-C3N4 leaving the holes behind in the VB, the excited electrons jumped to C60 from CB of gCN thus retaining the separation. Results demonstrated the enhanced degradation of MB and phenol at λ > 420 nm, degradation was about 2.9 and 3.2 time greater than that of bulk gCN, due to the efficient production of OH from holes, which acted as oxidation species and played a vital role in opening of benzene rings ([184]).

Figure 32.

Schematic illustration of charge separation and decomposition mechanism of organic pollutants by production of free radicals ([184]).

In addition to above discussed g-C3N4-based nanocomposites, there is a lot of literature based on the synthesis, uses and types of heterostructures based on the multifunctional approaches, as g-C3N4-based nanostructures (either with oxides or sulfides, either binary or tertiary) have become the main member of semiconductor photocatalysis family for the degradation of pollutants in environment specially in water. Besides g-C3N4/Fe2O3, g-C3N4/CeO2 g-C3N4/MoO3, g-C3N4/Fe3O4, g-C3N4/Ni(OH)2, g-C3N4/Ag2O, g-C3N4/MoS2, g-C3N4/NiS, g-C3N4/TaON, g-C3N4/ZnO, g-C3N4/g-C3N4, g-C3N4/In2O3, g-C3N4/WO3, SiO2/g-C3N4 and some ternary composites like, gCN/Fe3O4/CuWO4, BiOCl/Bi2MoO6/g-C3N4, Ag2CrO4/g-C3N4/GO, g-C3N4/TiO2/CNT, G-C3N4/CeO2/ZnO there are innumerable gCN composites, some composites with their photocatalytic activity and efficiency under visible light are mentioned in Table 2.

CompositePrecursor/synthesis methodTargeted pollutantDegradation efficiency/reason under visible lightReferences
TiO2/g-C3N4P-25 and dicyandiamideMethylene blue90% degradation in 300 min, 3.5 greater efficiency than SC alone.[185]
WO3/ g-C3N4Dicyandiamide and (NH4)5H5[H2(WO4)6]·H2OMB and 4-CPDegraded 97% of MB and 43% of 4-CP[186]
CdWO4/ g-C3N4Melamine/mixed calcination synthesisrhBDegradation of rhB due to O2•− radical formation, 1.6 and 54.6 times greater efficiency than gCN and CWO.[187]
In2S3/ g-C3N4Urea/hydrothermal synthesisrhBHJ formation widened the light absorption spectra, increased EHP separation and O2•− were reactive OS.[188]
V2O5/ g-C3N4Melamine/one-pot synthesisrhBDeterioration of rhB due to O2•− and OH, charge separation increased quantum efficiency under visible light.[189]
ZnO/ g-C3N4Melamine and zinc acetate/simple calcination methodMO and p-nitrophenolDegraded 97% of MO in 80 min, which was three and six times greater than gCN and ZnO alone.[190]
ZnWO4/g-C3N4Melamine/facile chemisorptionMBHigher electron hole pair separation, OH and O2•− were reactive species[191]
BiOI/BiOBr/g-C3N4DicyandiamideMBEffective charge separation, production of OH, O2•− and h+[192]
ZnO/ZnS/g-C3N4Melamine/two-step facile synthesisH2 ProductionHydrogen production 1205 μmol/g-C3N4:16 μmol/g[193]
YVO4/g-C3N4/AgHydrothermal/urea deposition methodMO3 times higher activity as compared to gCN alone[194]
C3N4/CNT/NiSSol-gel method/direct precipitation of cyanamideH2 Production148 times higher activity than pure gCN/CNT[195]
Ag3PO4/GO/g-C3N4Dicyandiamide/precipitationRhB degradation94.8% degradation in 50 min.[196]
g-C3N4/AgBr/RGOUrea/hydrothermal treatmentTetracycline and 2,4-DP78.4% degradation in 90 min and 68.2% within 6 h.[197]
g-C3N4/TiO2/ZnOHydrothermal treatmentp-toluene sulfonic acid90% degradation by composite, while only 40% by gCN[198]
g-C3N4/CeO2/ZnOUrea/pyrolysis and exfoliation methodMB11 times greater degradation than bare gCN[199]
Ag/g-C3N4/NaTaO3Melamine/photo deposition processDyes and tetracyclineImproved dye degradation and 95.47% removal of tetracycline.[200]

Table 2.

g-C3N4-based heterostructures/nanocomposite.


6. Conclusions

Majority organic, inorganic and other numerous pollutants which are either in the records of EPAs or not, are the refractory compounds and tend to become the part of fresh or potable water thus making it unfit for use. Besides employing membrane systems, VLA semiconductor photocatalysis has gained fame due to their cost effectiveness and eco-friendly nature and becoming a promising phenomenon for the treatment of water on global scale. The rapid development in field of nanotechnology has opened the doors for various advanced photocatalytic systems which includes the formation of complex structures by doping, co-doping, heterostructures, 0D to 3D structures and nanocomposites as heterogeneous photocatalysts, has been developed in recent decades and has helped the environment and water to get rid of stubborn pollutant species, such as bacteria like E. coli, B. subtilis, giardia cysts, harmful cyanobacteria and their toxins like microcystins LR, RR, YR, LA (types of Microcystins), etc. which are harmful for different life forms. However, the application of visible light active semiconductors in the long run will be a reason of development of sustainable environment, due to development of advanced oxidation processes which are triggered by sunlight, will become a renewable energy source for example the evolution of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide gas. Therefore, an effective assessment of SCs nanomaterials is still required to test true photoactivity and to enhance the commercialization for future regards.


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Written By

Fatima Imtiaz, Jamshaid Rashid and Ming Xu

Submitted: 23 January 2019 Reviewed: 26 April 2019 Published: 06 August 2019