A group of researchers has developed an artificial leaf that can mimic photosynthesis and convert carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuel. The best part of the technology, however, is that the new device is powered by sunlight alone.
So, scientists are now imagining all the possible applications from huge power plants on Earth and a never-ending power source on Mars.
Researchers at University of Illinois deemed the new technology ‘game-changing.’ They said that they have been experimenting with new chemicals to reproduce a process that closely mimics natural photosynthesis for years.
They also sought to convert the carbon dioxide a system is able to suck out of the atmosphere into something useful, such as burnable fuels. But they needed a new type of catalyst to enable them to do it.
In their experiments, engineers used nano-scale elements dubbed transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs). They learned that one type of TMDC was 1,000 more effective in absorbing oxygen than the metals used in the current CO2-capture technologies.
The TMDC only needed water and a particular electrolyte to work. Researchers also noted that their approach was 20 times cheaper.
They noted that the special ionic liquid employed as electrolyte is a lot more resilient than other electrolytes. Regular catalysts eventually get oxidized under the harsh redox conditions. But the new electrolyte in combination with water forms a co-catalyst that is no longer lost in the process.
The artificial leaf is in fact a solar cell made of tinier photovoltaic cells that can absorb sunlight. When the cell is hit by sunlight or 100 W of light per Sq m the cathode generates carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
In the meantime, the anode releases free hydrogen and oxygen ions. These chemical reactions create a special burnable gas called synthesis gas (syngas), which has the same properties as commercial hydrocarbon fuels.
The research team says that their technology can be used in solar farms, cars and homes. Engineers also dream of the day when the technology will provide fuel to deep space missions.
Nevertheless, in deep space, the device needs water to produce the chemical reactions. Mars represents an ideal location to test the technology if it has water on its surface since its atmosphere is packed with CO2.
A research paper on the system was published July 29 in the journal Science.
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