Solar Power to Turn Carbon Dioxide into Renewable Fuel


Written by qualified solar engineer Aniket. Last updated:

Swedish researchers from the Linköping University might be closer to a major breakthrough related to climate change and solar energy. The new study was published in ACS Nano. Results of the research indicate that it is possible to convert carbon dioxide into usable fuel that includes methane.

The methane obtained from this reaction can be used in vehicles adapted to use gaseous fuels. Other products of this reaction include carbon monoxide and formic acid. Both can be further processed so that they can be used as fuel or used directly for industrial applications.

Two Birds with One Stone

Rising levels of carbon dioxide and the consequent impact on the planet’s habitability have been a major issue in the recent decades. Reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere while fulfilling the ever-increasing demand of energy is possibly the greatest challenge of the 21st century. Trying to act on one of these puts a limit on the other.

This research is special in the sense that it might allow us to do both. Converting CO2 to a usable fuel requires energy. Using traditional fossil-based energy for this makes the whole process nearly pointless. However, using solar energy will allow us to reduce the CO2 levels without pumping more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Why Solar?

A major motivation for Linköping University’s Jianwu Sun and his colleagues was to imitate what plants do. Specifically, converting carbon dioxide and water to oxygen and high-energy sugars, which they use as ‘fuel’ to grow. A major energy source they use for this process is solar energy in its raw form, also known as photosynthesis. The researchers aim to do something similar – using solar photovoltaic instead of photosynthesis.

Image showing conversion of CO2 using solar powered photoelectrode

conversion of CO2 using solar powered photoelectrode (Source – ACS Nano)

Since the reaction can yield fuel usable for transportation, this would mean using solar energy for vehicles in an indirect manner. Currently, solar power cannot be used for widespread vehicle technology as it cannot match the power density of fuels like gasoline. However, the research conducted by senior lecturer Sun and his colleagues might be able to change this.

Being able to convert CO2 without having to wait for plants to grow to their full size can allow reducing larger than ever amounts of CO2. This has the potential to help nations and organizations reach their emission reduction targets within the deadlines. Add to the equation the rapidly dropping solar prices, which makes the research outcome even more important.

The researchers have used a novel method of combining graphene, an extremely thin and flexible material with silicon carbide. Using these two, they have created a photoelectrode that can use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into renewable fuel.

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