A team from the University of Cambridge is attempting to mimic a natural process perfected over billions of years to create ‘green transport fuel’. The team is capturing solar energy through artificial photosynthetic systems and combining it with water and air to brew up the next generation of clean gasoline.
The team, which is led by Dr. Erwin Reisner, hope that in a few decades people will be able to run their cars from power plants they have in their own homes.
“The sun provides our planet with a continuous flow of electromagnetic and carbon-free energy and really is the most obvious and abundant energy source that is capable of sustaining humankind’s long-term energy demand,” said Reisner.
“Given that almost 80% of the world’s energy is used in the form of fuels, one of the main challenges is to create a carbon-neutral, sustainable alternative that is cost-effective enough to replace the usage of petrol and diesel.”
The systems being developed by Reisner and colleagues would work in a similar way to fossil fuels, in that it would unleash energy created by the sun. However, while carbon-based fuels take millions of years to mature from the remains of organic matter, this energy is created in real-time.
Using solar energy to separate the elements that make up water and carbon dioxide (CO2), the Cambridge team is able to create synthetic gas, or syngas, which consists of energy-rich hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This gas combination is then converted into liquid hydrocarbons such as petroleum through an established industrial process.
“Syngas has been made successfully at an industrial level for decades by the petrochemical industry for the production of pharmaceuticals, plastics and fertilisers,” explained Reisner, who leads the Christian Doppler Laboratory in the Department of Chemistry, “but it requires fossil fuels to make syngas, thereby depleting our natural reserves and producing the greenhouse gas CO2 as a by-product. It’s therefore neither renewable nor clean.”
“The process we are developing is sustainable because it uses sunlight-driven water splitting and takes carbon from the atmosphere only to return it when the syngas is used for the release of energy.”
Images courtesy Erwin Reisner and dmott9