When it comes to creating clean, sustainable energy all day every day, plants have it down.
Using sunlight and water to create their own energy, plant photosynthesis is still infinitely more sustainable and efficient than even our best solar technology.
Solar panels have been able to get us close to harnessing the Sun’s energy for our own fuel needs, but the cost of upgrading existing infrastructure to run on solar power — as well as technological challenges — have stood in the way of a sci-fi future with solar-powered transportation.
But scientists haven’t given up hope on this sunlit future. Now, researchers have designed a new, wireless device that can synthesize carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to create a multi-use, carbon-neutral fuel. The flexibility of this energy creation could make it a good fit into the existing energy infrastructure and a feasible alternative to fossil fuels.
The researchers were able to yield nearly 100 percent fuel from this reaction without any wasteful byproducts.
In a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Energy, a team of chemists from the UK and Japan describe a wireless device for solar energy-harvesting that uses just water, CO2, and sunlight to produce formic acid — a type of fuel that can either be used directly or converted into hydrogen.
“Sometimes things don’t work as well as you expected, but this was a rare case where it actually worked better.”
The researchers explain that the approach is similar to work published by the UK arm of the team in 2019. The previous research focused on creating “artificial leaves” that used tiny solar cells to absorb photons for energy. An important difference in this study, the authors say, is that it’s even more simplistic, using a “photosheet” instead of individual solar cells to spark this chemical transformation.
Photosheets are made from semiconductor powders and can be manufactured on a mass scale, making them ideal for cost-effective scaling of the technology, the authors say.
This new approach is also more efficient in producing fuel than expected, overcoming a major challenge for the field, saysQian Wang, the study’s first author and chemist at the University of Cambridge.
“It’s been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity, so that you’re converting as much of the sunlight as possible into the fuel you want, rather than be left with a lot of waste,” Wang said in a statement.