A Device That Makes Clean Fuel From Sunlight, CO2, and Water?

solar reactor

Researchers have been attempting to convert carbon dioxide into fuel because it will both reduce carbon emissions while transitioning away from fossil fuel. Unfortunately, producing clean fuels or utilizing carbon dioxide for fuel has historically come with many unwanted byproducts, making it an unsustainable option.

The University of Cambridge researchers, however, have recently developed a wireless device that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into carbon-neutral fuel without the use of additional components and electricity. This device uses a cobalt-based catalyst and marks a significant shift towards artificial photosynthesis, which is the mimicking of plants’ natural ability to convert sunlight into energy.

The research was conducted by Professor Erwin Reisner, the paper’s head author, and a team from the University of Cambridge. Their findings have been reported in the journal Nature Energy. The results were also obtained through collaboration with a team from the University of Tokyo, led by Professor Kazunari Domen, co-author of the study.

TheWireless Device

In 2019, Reisner’s group developed a solar reactor. This solar reactor was based on an “artificial leaf” design, meaning that it mimicked the natural photosynthesis process of leaves. The device uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce fuel, and its design incorporated solar cells. The new wireless device works similarly to the 2019 solar reactor, but it is different in how it works and produces formic acid.

The new device is similar to the 2019 device in that it mimics plants’ abilities to convert sunlight into energy. It is based on advanced photosheet technology. How it works is that it converts sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and formic acid, which is a storable fuel that can either be used or turned into hydrogen, using a cobalt-based catalyst.

This new wireless device is a huge step towards developing artificial photosynthesis. In the past, it has been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity. The selectivity allows for the sunlight to be converted into the fuel you want, as opposed to waste or by-products. This new device surprisingly produces no by-products and exceeds researchers’ expectations, making it highly selective.

In contrast to the 2019 device, this new wireless device does not require solar cells because it relies solely on cobalt-based photocatalysts. These photocatalysts are embedded on a sheet, producing a photocatalyst sheet. The sheets are made from semiconductor powders, which can be cost-effective and easy to produce when produced in large batches.

More so, the new wireless device is more robust than the 2019 artificial leaf. As a result, it produces energy that is easier to store, which will allow it to potentially produce fuel products at scale. Currently, the test device is 20 centimeters, but researchers believe it could easily be enlarged to several meters.

In terms of production, the cobalt-based catalyst is easy to make, meaning that it can theoretically be produced for commercial deployment. Additionally, the produced formic acid can be accumulated in solution, or it can be chemically converted into other types of fuel.

Next Steps

The new wireless device represents a new method for converting carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral fuel. Although the device is easy to produce and relatively stable, efficiency must be improved before it is ready for commercial purposes.  As a result, the researchers are currently experimenting with alternative catalysts to improve stability and efficiency.

Additionally, Reisner notes that storing gaseous fuel can be complicated. Because of this fact, the team wants to create a device that creates a liquid fuel, which is easier to store and transport.

Despite the needed continued work, Reisner, as well as the rest of the research team, hopes that the new technology will help to create a more sustainable and practical solar fuel production for the future.


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