Carbon dioxide may not be our enemy. In fact, researchers in Chicago have just stumbled upon something that could make it our friend: technology transforms carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen that could power a fuel cell. In short, this could mean the end of gasoline production. The system would be able to draw in carbon dioxide and turn it into a synthetic fuel that could be used in vehicles, eliminating the need for all fossil fuels. A press release issued by the University of Illinois at Chicago indicates that its staff has engineered this potentially game-changing solar cell that cheaply and efficiently converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into usable hydrocarbon fuel, using only sunlight for energy. The finding is reported in the July 29 issue of Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Folks, this discovery is a game changer of HUGE proportions — bigger than even Donald Trump’s ego. Unlike conventional solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries, the new device essentially does the work of plants, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, solving two crucial problems at once. A solar farm of such “artificial leaves” could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and produce energy-dense fuel efficiently.
To make carbon dioxide into something that could be a usable fuel, the scientists needed to find a catalyst – a particular compound that could make carbon dioxide react more readily. When converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into a sugar, plants use an organic catalyst called an enzyme. According to the Nanowerk website, the researchers used a metal compound called tungsten diselenide, which they fashioned into nanosized flakes to maximize the surface area and to expose its reactive edges.
Theoretically, this device could create a virtuous cycle where climate-altering carbon could be removed from the atmosphere and pumped back into cars. And it would help scrub the atmosphere, turning the carbon that is heating our planet into fuel for cars, according to a statement from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This artificial leaf has a pair of solar cells that power a much more complex version of electrolysis that we’ve known about for a long time. Energy from the sun would be turned into synthetic gas that could be pumped directly into vehicles or converted into diesel. Should UIC’s just-released process prove to be cost-effective, it could spell the end of traditional gasoline production as we know it. Instead, a network of these cells would be installed at a solar farm, creating fuel and reducing the quantity of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the same time.
The challenge, now, is to make the process cost-effective. But that doesn’t appear to be a daunting task. Instead, this discovery creates new hope that we can harness the power of CO2 to make it a beneficial asset rather than a climate wrecker. The only downside is that we’d still be re-releasing the deadly gas back into the atmosphere, but it’s an important stop-gap that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and gives us time to work out eradication of excess carbon emissions more permanently.