Using sunlight to create fuel is one step closer

28 August 2020 | Muriel Cozier

A new device for artificial photosynthesis could lead to energy farms.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a technology which they say is a ‘significant step toward achieving artificial photosynthesis.’

Reporting their findings in the journal Nature Energy the researchers describe their process which is based on an advanced ‘photosheet’ technology and converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and formic acid – a storable fuel that can be used directly or converted into hydrogen.

The researchers say that their wireless device housing the technology could be scaled up and used on ‘energy farms’ similar to solar farms, producing clean fuel using sunlight and water.

The study’s first author Dr Qian Wang from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry said ‘It’s been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity, so that you’re converting as mush of the sunlight as possible into the fuel you want, rather than be left with a lot of waste.’  It was also highlighted that the storage of gaseous fuels and separation of by-products can be complicated and the researchers want to get to the point where they can cleanly produce a liquid fuel that can be easily stored and transported.

During 2019, the Cambridge team shared their work on a solar reactor based on an ‘artificial leaf’ design, which also uses sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to produce syngas. The new technology has similarities to the artificial leaf by it relies on photocatalysts embedded on a sheet. The sheets are comprised semiconductor powders, which can be prepared in large quantities cost-effectively. The artificial leaf relied on components from solar cells.

The new technology is also said to be more robust, produces clean fuel and has potential for producing fuel at scale. The test unit is 20 square centimetres in size, but it is anticipated that scaling up to several square metres should be straight forward.

While the new technology has been found to be stable and will be easier to scale up than previous developments, researchers say that efficiencies still need to be improved before commercial deployment can be considered. A range of catalysts are being explored to improve stability and efficiency. The latest results have been obtained in collaboration with a team from the University of Tokyo, Japan.

DOI: 10.1038/s41560-020-0678-6

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