Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago developed an artificial leaf to transform carbon dioxide into efficient, inexpensive fuel. In association with the U.S. Department of Energy, the group of scientists revealed how an artificial leaf can turn CO2 emissions into fuel.

Amin Salehi-Khojin, a professor at the UIC, said that Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, people have now the option of reversing the process and recycling atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight. At a time when solar power, wind power, and electric cars projects are quite away from their objectives and existing carbon capture technologies result unaffordable, an energy source with offset harms to the environment could be the option right around the corner.

Researchers have developed a new solar cell that converts carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuel using sunlight. The artificial leaf may help solve problems related to energy use.  Image Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We burn so many different kinds of hydrocarbons — like coal, oil or gasoline. That finding an economical way to make chemical fuels more reusable with the help of sunlight might have a big impact,” said Peter Zapol, a researcher participating in the project.

“Syngas” fuel

Using photosynthesis, scientists used a specially created device to pull in carbon dioxide. Then, the artificial leaf uses sunlight to transform carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which can subsequently be used as a fuel.

The component resulting from the artificial leaf process is called “syngas,” by scientists. This fuel is effectively carbon neutral and can recycle atmospheric carbon.

Unlike some experimental fuels that require an outside electricity source to set the process in motion, the artificial leaf fuel is a critical achievement because its process is even better for the environment due to its reliance of sunlight.

The artificial leaf idea comes to be a great success because of its cost-effective feature. Plants use an enzyme to catalyze photosynthesis; the artificial leaf uses tiny flakes of a tungsten-based compound. The Tungsten is a hard, rare metal found naturally on Earth within chemical elements. In contrast to other metals previously used by scientists in carbon capture, such as silver, tungsten is significantly cheaper, and so far, it has become effective in carbon capture process.

In the past, researchers have conducted several efforts to turn CO2 into energy, but the options they have found so far involve silver and other precious metals to work, which makes the process to expensive and resource-intensive to be possible on a large scale. Apart from being a cheap metal, the tungsten creates the fuel 1,000 times faster than silver.

However, researchers emphasized that “syngas” fuel is not clean energy. The advantage lays on its benefit of being a carbon-neutral energy that can be subsequently recaptured to create fuel. Mohammed Asadi, the top researcher on the study, solar parks could be a viable option to get this fuel mainstream.

For Mohammed Asadi, the top researcher on the study, solar parks could be a viable option to get this fuel mainstream.

As it is widely known, carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas; the right news is that there is a significant possibility it can be used as combustible, and if possible, it could be a game changer. Nevertheless, further studies need to be conducted before consumers can enjoy this new discovery.

Credit: Climate Central