Artificial leaf factories that float could create eco-friendly fuel for airplanes and boats.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed an innovative system that has the potential to create automated floating factories. These factories would produce environmentally friendly versions of petrol and diesel, eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions typically associated with fossil fuels.
The Cambridge project centers around a buoyant synthetic leaf, created at the university, that can convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into synthetic fuel. The team envisions that these slim and flexible devices could eventually be utilized on a large scale in industrial settings.
According to Erwin Reisner, a professor at Cambridge University specializing in energy and sustainability, solar panels are highly effective in producing electricity and play a significant role in achieving the global goal of reaching net zero emissions. Additionally, harnessing sunlight to create alternative fuels for transportation goes even beyond traditional methods.
Reisner and his team envision utilizing this technology to construct carpets made of synthetic leaves that could be placed on bodies of water such as lakes and river estuaries. These artificial leaves would then use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into the necessary components for producing fuels like petrol. According to Reisner, the main goal is not to completely eliminate carbon from the economy with methods like these. Rather, the focus is on “defossilizing” the economy by moving away from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, which contribute to the release of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The Cambridge-created synthetic leaf is based on the process of photosynthesis in plants, where food is produced. The first model involved using chemical light receptors and catalysts to convert carbon dioxide and water into a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, referred to as syngas in industry. Syngas serves as a key component in the manufacture of various chemicals and fuels.
The initial stage was pivotal, but the equipment was composed of unwieldy glass portions and safeguarding coverings. Enhancements were required and achieved through the utilization of thin-film metal oxides and perovskite materials, resulting in devices covered with micrometer-thin, water-resistant layers. The outcome was a compact yet efficient device, measuring only a millimeter in thickness and encompassing an area of 100 square centimeters, similar to a leaf.
The fabricated leaf creates hydrogen and carbon monoxide while floating on water. According to Reisner, the key factor is utilizing sunlight to drive these processes. The resulting chemicals have already been utilized for producing materials, but the ultimate aim is to produce fuel, such as diesel or gasoline. A potential objective is to produce environmentally-friendly kerosene for the aviation industry.
Vessels are also a focus of concern. Approximately 80% of worldwide commerce is carried by cargo ships which use fossil fuels, causing more than 3% of the total carbon dioxide output from industrial activities. Replacing their fuel with a viable environmentally-friendly option would greatly contribute to the fight against global warming.
One major benefit of this technology is its ability to float, eliminating the need for large amounts of land typically used for crops and woodlands. The developer stated that clean energy and land use would not conflict with one another.
Floating farms of solar fuel leaves could also supply coastal settlements and islands, and exploit water in industrial ponds and irrigation canals.
Reisner stated that these devices have the ability to be rolled up and placed in various locations, making them incredibly versatile.
The team has established a startup to market these innovations. Reisner stated, “We have reached the limits of the scientific aspect of these systems and it is now the responsibility of engineers to expand them for use on a larger scale to make a difference in reducing carbon emissions.”
It is necessary to bring solar chemistry out of the lab and into large-scale industrial use, and this will require significant financial investment.