In a previous article we touched on the subject of solar panels looking to mimic the art of photosynthesis. We also mentioned the challenges involved with re-creating a wonderful part of nature. But it seems technology might be catching up quicker than we think, because a new solar cell design can possibly be the answer.
According to Amin Salehi-Khojin, senior study author at the University of Illinois, this new technology deserves the title of photosynthetic, as opposed to photovoltaic. By only using the light from the sun, the cells can literally recycle carbon in the atmosphere and turn it into usable energy. This basically means the whole process of making fossil fuel is reversed.
The only big difference between the artificial leaf and a real one, is the form of the energy being produced. For real plants it's sugar, for this particular solar cell it's a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. In other words, the artificial leaf produces a synthetic gas that can be used as a fossil fuel. The chemical reaction that turns CO2 into a fuel is referred to as reduction reaction, something scientists have been looking to do without the need for precious metals. They've also been battling to make it efficient enough.
Now it seems the right catalysts have been found to fuel the process so-to-speak. After a lot of testing, Amin and his team have finally managed to collect a family of chemicals with the right properties. Why is this such great news for the general public? Because the cost of producing the cell is cheap and resources are readily available.
The catalysts that were tested for the new study are mainly nano-structure compounds, and they are combined with an unconventional ionic liquid, which acts as the electrolyte. This combination then gets placed in an electrochemical cell. Salehi-Khojin's findings were recently published in a paper, which appeared in the Journal of Science. He believes this could be the turning point for distributing the best fossil fuel alternative on a large scale.