The latest in solar technology is unlike what you would expect. Traditionally, solar cells harness sunlight and convert it into electricity, which is then stored in batteries. This is one of the cleanest forms of renewable energy that can be used to power your home or business. This type of solar cell isn’t going away any time soon, but a different type engineered recently by researchers at the University of Illinois is capable of doing the work of plants. This new solar cell could be a game-changer as it “cheaply and efficiently converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into usable hydrocarbon fuel” according to Solar Daily. The process is powered entirely by sunlight and requires no battery storage.
What does this new solar cell mean as far as real world problem solving? The benefits are two-fold. If entire solar farms were made up of these so-called artificial leaves, it could greatly reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere while simultaneously generating energy-rich fuel. Essentially, we can reverse some of the climate change damage done from burning fossil fuels and decrease the concentration of atmospheric CO2.
The product of this process is synthesis gas or syngas, which can be burned itself or converted into other hydrocarbon fuels. The artificial leaves convert carbon dioxide into fuel at a cost comparable to one gallon of gasoline. Read below for an explanation of the chemical process that made this possible as explained by Solar Daily:
“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it’s photosynthetic,” says Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study.
Chemical reactions that convert CO2 into burnable forms of carbon are called reduction reactions, the opposite of oxidation or combustion. Engineers have been exploring different catalysts to drive CO2 reduction, but so far such reactions have been inefficient and rely on expensive precious metals such as silver, Salehi-Khojin said.
“What we needed was a new family of chemicals with extraordinary properties,” he said.
Salehi-Khojin and his coworkers focused on a family of nano-structured compounds called transition metal dichalcogenides – or TMDCs – as catalysts, pairing them with an unconventional ionic liquid as the electrolyte inside a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell. The best of several catalysts they studied turned out to be nanoflake tungsten diselenide.
“The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide’s chemical bonds,” said UIC postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi. In fact, he said, the new catalyst is 1,000 times faster than noblemetal catalysts — and about 20 times cheaper.
This is truly a breakthrough in the field of solar technology that can have large and small-scale applications. This is the first solar cell that could render fossil fuels obsolete based on its affordability and efficiency. Fuel could be produced locally as opposed to relying on unstable regions. Scientists have been working since the first ‘artificial leaf’ was produced last year to find a cost-effective process that uses only sunlight and carbon dioxide to mimic the natural process of photosynthesis in plants to produce fuel, and it appears they finally have something that will stick.
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