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‘Super fuel’ from artificial leaves could replace oil

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Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas. Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-07-breakthrough-solar-cell-captures-carbon

Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas. Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine<br />Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-07-breakthrough-solar-cell-captures-carbon

•Scientists say innovative system may someday power world.

Scientists have found a way to create a renewable fuel source that could trump solar panels, new research suggests.

A scientific breakthrough that uses ‘artificial leaves’ to create a fuel similar to oil has been named a new ‘super fuel’.

Researchers used the same method of photosynthesis to create the fuel, by adding carbon dioxide to the water to make a hydrocarbon.

Plants use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose.

In the same way, artificial leaves use the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into hydrocarbon fuels.

Using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, scientists have developed a catalyst called ‘nanoflake tungsten diselenide’.

This catalyst converts carbon monoxide in a leaf at greatly improved efficiency compared with conventional metal catalysts.

When combined with the hydrogen the carbon monoxide produces a fuel called syngas that can then be used as the basis of hydrocarbons.

Compared to photosynthesis, where glucose is produced by the sun turning carbon dioxide into glucose, this process uses artificial leaves and energy from the sun to turn water and carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuels similar to those we take from oil.

The energy created is then stored immediately, something that does not occur with conventional solar panels.

Conventional solar panels take energy directly from the sun and covert it into electricity but only with an efficiency rate of 20 per cent. Now, a team at the University of Illinois, United States (U.S.), announced that they have found a way to make the artificial leaves more efficient.

Plants convert only about one per cent of sunlight into fuel, but the introduction of the artificial leaf converts ten per cent.

Daniel Nocera, from Harvard, US, from his paper published in the journal Science, said: “I can definitely see a path forward now. There’s still a lot to be done and you can always keep improving.

“But we can be way better than nature in taking sunlight and making fuels. I find that massively encouraging.”

Amin Salehi, from the University of Illinois, found a different approach to the research.

Using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, his team has developed a catalyst called ‘nanoflake tungsten diselenide’ that simultaneously converts carbon monoxide in the leaf – at greatly improved efficiency compared with conventional metal catalysts.

Salehi said: “The catalyst has 12,000 times better production than noble metals. It is 20 to 30 times cheaper too. We’re talking about an improvement of 20-30,0000 times.”

He also believes that this could be used in conjunction with conventional power plants to make a fuel ‘loop’.

“I envisage having a small solar farm next to a chemical and power plant, taking carbon dioxide out of the stream, injecting it into the leaf and producing fuels. If you make a loop of this it could be very efficient.”

Nocera said that whichever technique proved best the research was now at a level that no serious technical impediments remained and all that was needed was the investment to scale it up into a useable product.

*Adapted from DailyMailUK Online



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