UK researchers harness solar energy to create clean fuel

Written by: Laura Hopperton | Published:
UK researchers harness solar energy to create clean fuel Image courtesy of Nanoco Technologies

Scientists from the University of East Anglia are working on harnessing the vast energy of the sun to produce clean fuel.

In collaboration with the universities of Manchester, York and Nottingham, the researchers have already found a way to produce hydrogen from water using nanotechnology, an advance they believe could one day offer an alternative to fossil fuel.

Now the team is aiming to use the same technology to create alternatives for other fuels and feedstock chemicals, including turning methane into liquid methanol and carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

"The sun's potential is vast – just one hour of sunlight is equivalent to the amount of energy used over the world in an entire year – yet no one has yet tapped into its immense power to make fuels," said Professor Chris Pickett of UEA's School of Chemistry. "Globally, chemists, physicists and materials scientists are coming together to work on artificial photosynthesis to get to a stage where we can viably make clean, green fuels."

Professor Wendy Flavell, from the University of Manchester's Photon Science Institute, is currently working to create a solar-nano device using quantum dots – tiny clusters of semiconducting material which absorb sunlight.

"When sunlight is absorbed, carriers of electric current are created," she explained. "Together with catalyst molecules grafted to the surfaces of the dots, these create the new fuel, For example, hydrogen can be produced from water. Our sun provides far more energy than we will ever need, but we use it really inefficiently."

To make better use of the Sun's resource, Prof Flavell believes more needs to be done to create solar fuel that can be stored and shipped to where it is needed and used on demand. As most hydrogen is obtained from fossil fuels, which are not going to last forever, she maintains the importance of getting energy from renewable sources.

"One of the key questions is 'what do we do when the sun goes down, what happens at night?'" she said. "If we can store the energy harnessed from the sun during the day then we will have supplies ready to use when the sun is not shining. This is a first step in taking the vast power of the sun and using it to provide the world's fuel needs."


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