Solar cell 'game changer' mimics the work of plants

By Jodi Delapaz

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2016 - A solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into usable hydrocarbon fuel cheaply and efficiently - and uses only sunlight for energy - has been engineered by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The technology could be a “game-changer” for the solar industry, the team says.

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Conventional solar cells convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries. The new device is an “artificial leaf” that essentially does the work that plants do.

While plants produce fuel in the form of sugar, the artificial leaf delivers syngas, or synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. Syngas can be burned directly, or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.

A solar farm consisting of these artificial leaves could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and produce energy-dense fuel efficiently, say the researchers.

“Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable, one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight,” says Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study.

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The technology should be adaptable not only to large-scale use, like solar farms, but also to small-scale applications, Salehi-Khojin says. In the future, he says it may prove useful on Mars, whose atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, if the planet is also found to have water.

The ability to turn CO2 into fuel at a cost comparable to a gallon of gasoline would render fossil fuels obsolete, says the team.

The finding is reported in the July 29 issue of Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department. A provisional patent application has been filed.

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