Can solar panel cells create more than just electricity from the sun? Apparently, researchers at the University of Illinois think they’ve discovered just that. Their new solar cells have been developed to turn CO2 into hydrocarbon fuel. Not only could this help us create energy but could also solve the problem of rising CO2 and carbon monoxide levels that are damaging the environment and a leading cause of global warming.
If you think that sounds just like what plants do, then you are not far off the mark. This new photosynthetic style cell doesn’t turn sunlight and CO2 into sugar, however, but can be used to form what the developers are calling synthetic gas, an end product which can then be burned or converted into diesel and other types of hydrocarbon fuel.
Illinois are not the only ones investigating this interesting possibility and there are a couple of amazing things that are getting the scientific world quite excited about its development. There’s the idea that you can reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by building certain types of solar cell. But there’s also the potential that if you can produce the gas and liquid fuel cheaply enough then it could make fossil fuels completely obsolete.
Scientists have already found ways of turning another greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide, into ethanol. Changing CO2 into fuel, however, has proved more difficult despite our best efforts. The researchers have used compound called tungsten diselenide to do this and the initial results are looking good. The process has proved to work but there is still one major hurdle to be overcome.
The question, as always, with new inventions and processes is how scalable they are. While they have succeeded in producing hydrocarbon fuel in the laboratory setting, the next step will be to do it on a bigger, industrial scale. The bad news is that this is exactly where many processes and inventions fall down. The costs begin to escalate and it suddenly become unviable compared to existing methods such as using fossil fuels.
It’s one of the things that has been a challenge for the development of batteries to store renewable energy. While small banks of batteries can work for the home or office, creating these on a much larger scale so that they can be used by power stations is still proving elusive.
If the solar cells developed at Illinois can be replicated on a large scale, we could in future see big plants with a different kind of solar farm at the centre, producing valuable fuel that is cheap and easily sourced. The good news is that large companies such as Shell are already looking at synthetic gas production and this new solar induced solution could be part of their development in the future.
Illinois are not the only ones trying to harness this technology either. The SOLAR-JET consortium based in Germany is making big headway in hopefully creating jet fuel from sunlight, something that could revolutionise the airline industry. As with Illinois, success has been seen on a laboratory scale but raising the stakes and producing industrial scale amounts of aviation fuel is still a long way off.