Game-Changing Photocell Turns Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

Shown is the prototype equipment. University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine

An American breakthrough might provide a new approach to fuel production and reducing carbon emissions.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have developed a solar cell that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a cheap and usable hydrocarbon fuel, using only sunlight.

"The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it's photosynthetic," said Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study, in a statement.

"Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

The findings are reported in Science, and they showcase a technology that could produce fuel at a cost comparable to the current price of gasoline.

The cell acts in a similar way to a leaf. While plants convert CO2 and light into oxygen and sugars, the solar cell produces Syngas, a portmanteau for synthetic gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can either be burned directly or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.

The technological success was possible thanks to a nanoflake tungsten diselenide, a specially engineered catalyst which made the reaction 1,000 times faster and 20 times cheaper than using regular noble-metal catalysts.

"The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide's chemical bonds," said UIC postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi, first author on the paper. The researchers have applied for a provisional patent for the technology.

There are about 1.2 billion motor vehicles around the world, which includes everything from motorbikes to heavy duty trucks. Climate change is a clear and present threat to all of us, so we need to strive to move towards a renewable future but we need to be realistic on how to get there. Sustainable production of fuels, combined with better management of resources and energy efficiency, seems like a sound strategy to move beyond fossil fuels.

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