Article image

Breakthrough: Sunshine will soon power your car instead of gasoline

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have broken new ground, ushering in a new era of green energy. The researchers have unveiled a cutting-edge solar-powered technology that transforms carbon dioxide and water into liquid fuels. 

The real game changer here is that these fuels can directly power a car’s engine without any modifications – a so-called “drop-in” fuel.

This innovative technology leverages photosynthesis, the natural process through which plants convert sunlight into energy. It manages to replicate this process, using the sun’s power to turn CO2 and water into multicarbon fuels. These fuels, ethanol and propanol, pack a high energy density, and the bonus is that they’re also simple to store and transport.

Zero net carbon emissions thanks to photosynthesis

There’s an important difference between these solar fuels and their fossil fuel counterparts. The solar fuels developed by these researchers produce zero net carbon emissions – a critical factor in our fight against climate change. 

They are fully renewable, and in contrast to the majority of bioethanol fuels, their production does not encroach on any agricultural land that could otherwise be used for food production.

Although this technology remains at the laboratory stage, it’s seen as a significant step toward our departure from a fossil fuel-dependent economy. The groundbreaking findings are documented in the journal Nature Energy.

Breaking free of biofuels

Bioethanol has long been championed as a cleaner substitute for petrol, being plant-derived rather than reliant on fossil fuels. It’s noteworthy that many cars and trucks on our roads today operate on petrol with an ethanol content of up to 10% (known as E10 fuel). 

The United States holds the title as the world’s largest bioethanol producer. Around 45 percent of all corn grown in the US is dedicated to ethanol production, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, biofuels like ethanol have not escaped controversy. “They take up agricultural land that could be used to grow food instead,” said Professor Erwin Reisner, who led the research.

Reisner and his team, based in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, have been working tirelessly for several years on developing sustainable, zero-carbon fuels. These are inspired by photosynthesis and utilize artificial leaves.

Prior to this breakthrough, these artificial leaves could only generate simple chemicals, such as syngas, a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide used in the manufacture of fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and fertilizers. The real challenge was to create more complex chemicals in a single step powered by the sun.

Major breakthrough by the research team

The team’s latest accomplishment has been to adapt the artificial leaf to produce clean ethanol and propanol directly, bypassing the intermediate syngas production step. 

This was made possible by developing a catalyst based on copper and palladium. This catalyst was specifically optimized to allow the artificial leaf to create these multi-carbon alcohols.

This achievement is a first. While other scientists have produced similar chemicals using electrical power, it’s the first time that such complex chemicals have been produced with an artificial leaf harnessing only solar energy.

Dr. Motiar Rahaman, the paper’s first author, expressed his excitement: “Shining sunlight on the artificial leaves and getting liquid fuel from carbon dioxide and water is an amazing bit of chemistry.” 

He emphasized that their achievement of converting CO2 into a practical liquid fuel using only sunlight was a tremendous leap forward, one that opens up a whole new path in their work.

Still lots of work to be done

As it stands, this device is a proof of concept, currently demonstrating only modest efficiency. 

The experts are striving to improve the light absorbers for enhanced sunlight absorption and tweaking the catalyst for better sunlight to fuel conversion. Moreover, the device’s scalability needs attention for it to produce fuel in larger volumes.

“Even though there’s still work to be done, we’ve shown what these artificial leaves are capable of doing,” said Reisner. He believes it’s vital to demonstrate that they can push beyond the production of the simplest molecules and generate materials that are directly useful in our transition away from fossil fuels.

This revolutionary research was funded in part by the European Commission Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, the Cambridge Trust, and the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability. 

A very bright future for clean cars, thanks to sunlight

This groundbreaking work undertaken by the Cambridge team signals a promising future for renewable fuels. It’s a major advancement in green energy research that could pave the way towards a future less reliant on fossil fuels. 

While the technology is still in its early stages, its potential implications for combating climate change and promoting sustainable fuel production are truly exciting. As we continue to battle the effects of climate change, this pioneering work on solar fuels could be a critical piece of the puzzle in our quest for a cleaner, greener world.

More about clean energy and zero net carbon emissions

Clean energy, also known as renewable energy, refers to energy produced from sources that do not deplete when used or those that naturally replenish within a human lifetime. These sources include wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and even certain forms of biomass. 

As a result of their renewable nature, they have a significantly lower environmental impact compared to conventional energy sources like coal, oil, and gas.

One of the most compelling arguments for the use of clean energy is its potential to help achieve zero net carbon emissions or carbon neutrality. 

The importance of carbon neutrality

Carbon neutrality means balancing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere with an equivalent amount of CO2 sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference. In essence, it’s when the net amount of carbon dioxide emissions (emissions minus offsets) equals zero.

Why is achieving carbon neutrality important? Well, carbon dioxide is one of the primary greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and climate change. An excess of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere traps heat, leading to a rise in global temperatures—a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect.

Clean energy technologies play a crucial role in achieving zero net carbon emissions. For example, solar panels convert sunlight directly into electricity, and wind turbines generate power from wind flow. Both methods produce electricity without releasing CO2, unlike traditional fossil fuel power plants.

Further, when used for heating, cooling, and transportation – which together account for a large portion of global CO2 emissions – clean energy technologies can help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and thereby lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Achieving energy efficiency through clean energy 

It’s worth noting that clean energy also involves energy efficiency. By optimizing how we use energy, we can achieve the same results with less, reducing the overall demand for energy and thereby contributing to lower emissions.

While transitioning to a clean energy future involves significant challenges – including technology and infrastructure development, costs, and policy and regulatory hurdles – the long-term benefits for our environment, health, and economy make it a compelling goal. 

This is the context in which the work by the researchers at the University of Cambridge, as well as many other scientists worldwide, takes on such importance. These efforts represent vital steps towards creating sustainable and scalable solutions for clean energy and achieving zero net carbon emissions.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day