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Creating Fuel from Thin Air

Eleanor Hubble
3 November 2020

Leaves Photosynthesis

The sun produces a great amount of energy, more than enough energy for human activities.

Solar panels have advanced in recent years, and are now cheaper and more efficient than ever, but they just provide electricity, not the storable liquid fuels which are still in huge demand.

Erwin Reisner, energy and sustainability professor at Cambridge University, believes we need to look to nature so solve the issue of storable energy, saying: "Plants are a huge inspiration, because they have learned over millions of years how to take up sunlight and store the energy in energy carriers. I really believe that artificial photosynthesis will be one part of that energy portfolio over the next two decades."

Professor Reisner wants to mimic the process of photosynthesis, but whereas plants create carbohydrates from water and carbon dioxide, he believes we should aim to produce something which can be better used for energy.

Reisner’s team have developed a small device which is capable of converting sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into formic acid and oxygen – a liquid fuel with high energy density.

The device works using a very thin panel which sits in a bath of water and carbon dioxide, when exposed to sunlight the panel releases electrons which combine with the carbon dioxide and the protons in the water to make formic acid.

"These systems are like panels or sheets. It's a very thin device - you can almost think of it as like a sheet of paper," states Professor Reisner.

One of the biggest advantages of this devise is the fact that that it doesn't require an external power source, nor any top-ups of additional catalysts.

It would seem the team at Cambridge University aren’t the only ones to see the potential, as artificial photosynthesis is benefitting from some major investment and in the US the Department of Energy announced they will be allocating $100 million over the coming five years.

Although at the moment artificial photosynthesis still can't produce liquid fuel cheaply enough to compete with fossil fuels, this could change with more investment and research.

Professor Reisner states “at some point in the future the price of artificial photosynthesis will go down and the price of fossil fuels will go up. The question is just when these lines cross.”

“Once economy of scale comes in, a lot is possible. So I'm very optimistic."

Read more here.

This story is adapted from a BBC news article, with editorial changes made by the METaL Project.