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Tailpipe to Tank

Submitted by on September 14, 2015 – 6:21 pmNo Comment

by Robert F. Service (Science Magazine)  Stuart Licht has designed the ultimate recycling machine. The solar reactor that he and colleagues built in his lab at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., takes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere—a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion—and uses the energy in sunlight to turn it back into fuel. There are a few steps in between. Water is also involved in the reaction, which produces hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO); they in turn can be stitched into liquid hydrocarbon fuels. But Licht’s is one of the most efficient devices of its type ever constructed.

It is only one of the solar fuel technologies taking shape in labs around the world. They embody a dream: the prospect of one day bypassing fossil fuels and generating our transportation fuels from sunlight, air, and water—and in the process ridding the atmosphere of some of the CO2 that our fossil fuel addiction has dumped into it.

Enthusiasts even see a glimmer of hope for making the technology economical: the steady spread of renewable electricity sources, such as wind farms and solar plants. Already, windmills and solar cells sometimes generate more power than locals can absorb. If this oversupply could be stored in chemical fuels, experts argue, utility providers might be able to save their power for use anytime and anywhere—and make extra money on the side.

The need for liquid fuels is unlikely to go away despite concerns about climate change. The high energy density and ease of transport of gasoline and other liquid hydrocarbons have made them the mainstay of the world’s transportation infrastructure. Researchers continue to pursue the use of low-carbon gases, such as methane and hydrogen, as transportation fuels, and electric cars are proliferating. But for long-distance trucks and other heavy vehicles, as well as aviation, there is no good alternative to liquid fuels. Solar fuel proponents argue that finding a way to brew them from readily available compounds such as water and CO2 could make a sizable dent in future CO2 emissions.

So the challenge for chemists is to create syngas from renewables more cheaply than current sources can match.

Licht’s charge-conducting electrolyte uses lithium, a somewhat rare and costly metal whose limited supplies could prevent a massive scale-up. Licht also faces competition from other researchers who also use high temperatures to ease the splitting of water and CO2, but rely entirely on electricity instead of solar heating. But like sungas, those schemes, called solid oxide electrolysis cells, face the longevity challenges of running at high temperatures.

Denmark, for example, already produces some 30% of its electricity from wind farms and is on pace to reach 50% by 2020. On a particularly blustery day in July, the nation’s wind turbines generated as much as 140% of the country’s electrical requirements. The excess was sent to its neighbors, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. But the oversupply added to utilities’ fears that in times of peak renewable power production, the value of electricity could fall to zero or even below, as producers would have to pay others to take it so as not to damage their grid.

That’s where solar fuel producers could stand to benefit, Kenis says: By absorbing that power and using it to make fuels and other commodities, they could essentially act as energy banks and perhaps earn some cash as well. For now, Kanan argues, it still makes the most economic sense simply to shunt excess renewable power into the grid, displacing fossil energy. But someday, if renewable power becomes widespread enough and the technology for making renewable fuels improves, we may be able to guzzle gas without guilt, knowing we are just burning sunlight.  READ MORE

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