Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy

Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

Mar 17

Turning Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel

Posted in Biofuels | Energy Inventions | Solar Power

Sunlight Liquid Fuel We have been hearing about artificial leaves and artificial trees for energy generation for quite sometime. Our life giver green plants are performing this function called photosynthesis for millions of years. The green plants trap sunlight energy and convert it into electrochemical energy. Now scientists want to imitate the process of photosynthesis to produce clean and green liquid fuels from carbon dioxide and water.


Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are now in the process of a major breakthrough towards artificial photosynthesis. They are quite hopeful about the properties of nano-sized crystals of cobalt oxide. They are banking on cobalt oxide that can effectively carry out the crucial photosynthetic reaction of splitting water molecules.

Artificial photosynthesis will not add up to the green house gases and hence global warming. This will be a renewable resource for transportation energy. The idea is to create an artificial leaf that can duplicate the few steps of photosynthesis. That leaf can capture the solar photons and have a catalytic system in place that can oxidize water.

Heinz Frei and Feng Jiao have published the findings of their study in the journal Angewandte Chemie. This research was carried out with help of the Helios Solar Energy Research Center (Helios SERC), a scientific program at Berkeley Lab under the direction of Paul Alivisatos. They are concentrating on developing fuels from sunlight. Frei is the deputy director of Helios SERC.

Heinz Frei, who is a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division, explains, “Photooxidation of water molecules into oxygen, electrons and protons (hydrogen ions) is one of the two essential half reactions of an artificial photosynthesis system – it provides the electrons needed to reduce carbon dioxide to a fuel.” He again emphasized why he is putting lots on effort into cobalt oxide, “Effective photooxidation requires a catalyst that is both efficient in its use of solar photons and fast enough to keep up with solar flux in order to avoid wasting those photons. Clusters of cobalt oxide nanocrystals are sufficiently efficient and fast, and are also robust (last a long time) and abundant. They perfectly fit the bill.”

Fredi also explained why they are not very keen on using iridium oxide for artificial photosynthesis. He stated though iridium oxide is efficient and fast enough for light absorption and a good catalyst but this metal is least abundant metal on earth. Hence it is not very practical to use it on commercial scale. He says, “We needed a metal that was equally effective but far more abundant.” First they tried to take the manganese-based organometallic complexes for artificial photosynthesis, which plants use in Photosystem II. But manganese-containing compounds were water insoluble and not very robust. Fredi and his team paid attention to cobalt oxide which is a highly abundant material and fit for commercial use. Cobalt oxide also dissolves in water.

But it was not a success story right from the beginning. The micron-sized particles of cobalt oxide were ineffective and slow to act as catalysts. Then Frei and Jiao turned to nano-sized cobalt oxide. “The yield for clusters of cobalt oxide (Co3O4) nano-sized crystals was about 1,600 times higher than for micron-sized particles,” said Frei. “And the turnover frequency (speed) was about 1,140 oxygen molecules per second per cluster, which is commensurate with solar flux at ground level (approximately 1,000 Watts per square meter).” The next big step, however, will be to integrate the water oxidation half reaction with the carbon dioxide reduction step in an artificial leaf type system.

  • Slobodan Alakovic

    Is there possibilities for using of produced hydrogen as fuel (in power cells, for example)? It looks like a good idea for using with secondary fuel cells to me.

  • Paul Fleury

    Does this system only respond to visible light? It would be a great advantage if it was sensetive to the full light spectrum.

  • Jacob Hutchinson

    That would be a life saver. If you guys are into this, look at the battery that charges in seconds… really cool!

  • Jay

    This idea would be beneficial to everyone. Once the photosynthesis takes place, the energy the cell (or whatever device will be used) is collecting the energy, a battery could be inserted to storage the energy so once the daylight hours end, the vehicle or whatever structure is being powered, could switch from the solar cell to the backup battery that could last 2-3 days. good luck.

  • G.Hauser

    That may be the right way to use the sunlight in the hot zones tropical/subtropical where was no way to feed in energy from PV Cell in grid.

    With this possibility one can generate the hydrogen and under use of carbon dioxide from the industry could made a synthesis to methanol – which have an acceptable rate of energy and is easy transportable – than would be needed only one step to process it to normal fuel – so we have normal fuel with the high energy from the sun and we had pull a lot of CO2 back in the energy cycle – that would really help the world.

  • Pete Nick

    I hate to rain on your parade but what you need to do this costs a huge amount of capital and energy. Breaking up CO2 is more difficult typically than pulling hydrogen from oxygen in water. We’ve looked at it for years and still can’t find a scheme that makes any sort of economic sense to reuse CO2 in the production of transport fuels. 2nd Law of thermo gets in the way.

    Pete Nick
    Calif registerd PE – Chemical

  • T. Mishra

    This is a nice idea but converting the idea into the reality is not easy. Of course we wish something positive will come out of this research so that CO2 can be reused for fuel through a photocatalytic process.

  • B.Govindaraj

    It looks to be really great idea…


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