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renewable energy

New road to net zero paved in sunshine

A renewable fuel for cars produced with solar power that doesn’t compete with food crops for agricultural land is in the works at the University of Cambridge.

Researchers at the institution are making liquid fuels from carbon dioxide and water in a solar-powered process ‘inspired by photosynthesis’.  Available directly as a drop-in fuel the innovation produces net zero ethanol and propanol in a single step.

“Even though there’s still work to be done, we’ve shown what these artificial leaves are capable of doing.”

Professor Erwin Reisner

The technology is currently at lab scale but the team says its ‘artificial leaves’ – which convert sunlight into multicarbon fuels – are a significant step on the road ‘away from a fossil fuel-based economy’. 

“Biofuels like ethanol are a controversial technology, not least because they take up agricultural land that could be used to grow food instead,” said Professor Erwin Reisner, who led the research.

The researchers say this is the ‘first time that such complex chemicals have been produced with an artificial leaf using only the energy from the sun’.

“Shining sunlight on the artificial leaves and getting liquid fuel from carbon dioxide and water is an amazing bit of chemistry,” said Dr Motiar Rahaman, the paper’s first author. “Normally, when you try to convert CO2 into another chemical product using an artificial leaf device, you almost always get carbon monoxide or syngas, but here, we’ve been able to produce a practical liquid fuel just using the power of the sun. It’s an exciting advance that opens up whole new avenues in our work.”

The results are reported today in the journal Nature Energy.

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Written By

Susan is the co-founder of Innovators Magazine and a consultant for OnePoint5Media. Susan is also a member of the UNFCCC-led Resilience Frontiers Nexus group and the Chair of the APOPO Foundation UK board.


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