Bright sparks in quest for solar fuel

Scientists from across the world are working together to produce a commercially viable solar fuel.

Scientists from across the world are working together to produce a commercially viable solar fuel. Photo credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Next month will see some of the sharpest minds in energy research gathering to ponder a problem that nature solved around 3.4 billion years ago.

About 25 participants from around the world will meet from June 11 to 13 in Uppsala, Sweden, to survey the latest progress on the development of solar fuels, which is essentially the same as artificial photosynthesis.

While the use of sunshine to store energy in molecular form is something plants have been doing possibly since the Paleoarchean era, for humans it is a fairly new undertaking.

Academic research in the field only dates back as far as around 1985, with industry research and development (R&D) kicking in around a decade ago, according to the Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI).

SOFI itself, which will be staging the meeting in Uppsala, was set up in February 2012 to support academic research underpinning R&D efforts to create commercially viable solar fuels. The Institute essentially brings researchers and the private sector together.

Focusing on CO2 catalysis

And while solar fuel generation technically includes using sunshine to create hydrogen, SOFI has a particular focus on CO2 catalysis to produce synthesis gas that can then be converted to methane, synthetic petroleum or other liquid fuels.

“We want to accelerate research within academic labs because it’s cheaper than doing it yourself and you have more shots on goal,” observed Dick Co, founder and co-managing director.

So far the initiative has pulled together more than a dozen heavyweight research teams, including people from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis and Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA.

SOFI is also supported by the French oil giant Total, among other corporate sponsors, but considering the potential impact of a viable solar fuel it is a wonder more industrial giants are not queuing up to take part.

After all, a solar-based hydrocarbon fuel could be as big a game-changer as power from nuclear fusion.

Liquid fuel from sunlight

If a cost-effective way is found of synthesising liquid fuel from sunlight on an industrial scale then it could be used to substitute fossil fuels in current transportation or grid energy systems, without the adaptations that might be needed for hydrogen or ammonia.

That in turn could halt the increase of global greenhouse gas emissions and reduce geopolitical tensions around oil and gas supplies. SOFI hints that solar fuel could ultimately set users free from traditional energy suppliers altogether.

“The eventual solar fuels device can range from a portable device that provides personalised power to a utility plant that operates on the multi-MW scale,” says the Institute.

“Imagine a unit that sits on the roof of a home and is driven by sunlight to convert water and ambient CO2into a storable liquid fuel. Or imagine a factory that produces artificial aviation fuel while leaving no carbon footprint.

“The outcomes of this technological revolution will depend on the development of current science and the discovery of new materials and processes.”

However, while solar fuel could potentially hasten the energy de-coupling process that is already happening with distributed renewable energy, a more likely scenario is that the companies currently funding research will want a measure of control over who uses it.

Producing fuel on tap

That might well be good enough.

Being able to produce hydrocarbon fuel on tap, rather than having to find it and get it out of the ground, could help oil companies and others stabilise and reduce pricing and maybe even lead to new consumption models, such as subscription-based usage.

Of course, such developments are still some way off at present.

According to a timeline on the SOFI web site, products currently under development will probably not get to market until the early 2020s, so it will be a while before you can fill your tank with solar petrol.

Nevertheless, that timeline is still ahead of current estimates for fusion to start shaping up, and certainly no more ambitious than current lacklustre policy attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions in regions such as the European Union.

And even though SOFI’s timeline itself could be subject to setbacks, the fact that solar fuel development does not currently seem dependent on particular policy framework, but rather the keenness of researchers and private sector investors, bodes well for the future.

Written by Jason Deign

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