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Experimental Device Converts Light and Water into Fuel

Credit: University of Cambridge

“Photosynthesis! Photosynthesis!”

Photosynthesis is the process through which plants absorb sunlight and transform ambient water and carbon dioxide into food and energy for themselves. It’s the ultimate green energy, pun intended; if we could somehow utilize this ancient biological process, we could theoretically have a limitless source of clean, carbon-neutral power. Well, guess what some researchers over at the University of Cambridge did?

Dr. Qian Wang and Professor Erwin Reisner, along with a team of researchers from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, have created a new device that can mimic the process of photosynthesis, processing sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into completely clean fuel. This process doesn’t even require any external parts or electricity; just set it up and let it go. The device produces a clean, storage-safe fuel known as formic acid, which can also be processed into hydrogen. Plus, much like real plants, the process creates oxygen as a byproduct.

It’s all thanks to a newer technology known as “photosheets.” By embedding photocatalysts (carbon dioxide converting cobalt) into sheets made of semiconductor powders, you get a surface not unlike the surface of a leaf that can parse and convert elements. Not only are these sheets dirt-cheap to produce, they could be very easily scaled up en masse to create a power farm.

Credit: University of Cambridge

“We were surprised how well it worked in terms of its selectivity — it produced almost no by-products,” said Dr. Wang. “Sometimes things don’t work as well as you expected, but this was a rare case where it actually worked better.”

There’s still lots of work that needs to be done. Specifically, while the process doesn’t produce a lot of byproducts, “not a lot” isn’t the same as “none.” The whole point of the device is to produce waste-free power, which would be kind of pointless if it produced wasteful byproducts.

“Storage of gaseous fuels and separation of by-products can be complicated — we want to get to the point where we can cleanly produce a liquid fuel that can also be easily stored and transported,” said Professor Reisner. He concluded by saying, “we hope this technology will pave the way toward sustainable and practical solar fuel production.”