'Artificial Leaf' Creates Fuel From CO2 and Sunlight

solar cell renewable energy co2
The new solar cells recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight. Creative Commons

A solar cell breakthrough has the potential to render fossil fuels obsolete while at the same time reversing some of the damage such fuels have done to the atmosphere, new research suggests.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) created a catalyst that uses the sun's energy to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into burnable hydrocarbon fuel.

"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," said Amin Salehi-Khojin, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC.

Salehi-Khojin and his colleague's findings are published in the July 29 issue of the journal Science and a patent application for the technology has been filed.

Conventional solar cells convert the sun's energy into electricity that needs to be stored in batteries. The "artificial leaves" instead produce energy-dense fuel by recreating the natural process found in plants.

It is hoped the technology can be scaled for use in solar farms and Salehi-Khojin even believes it could be used on Mars where the atmosphere is mostly made up of carbon dioxide.

The research received praise from Robert McCabe, a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy funded the research.

McCabe said: "The research team has combined this mechanistic insight with some clever electrochemical engineering to make significant progress in one of the grand-challenge areas of catalysis as related to energy conversion and the environment."