Converting solar energy into liquid fuel

Author: ID.Studio

Converting solar energy into liquid fuel using carbon dioxide. Obtaining a type of fuel, solar fuel, that is easily produced, stored and used. Is it possible or just a dream?

The problem has perhaps become popular since Bill Gates declared that this challenge could prove to be crucial for fighting climate change, as you can see in this video from CNN.

Also the 2015 announcement that Harvard scientists had created a “bionic leaf that converts solar energy into a liquid fuel”, shows the topic is focal even in the scientific community.

Actually, that is also the purpose of a scientific collaboration that has been going on for about a year between the department of Physics of the University of Trento, the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (Differ) and the Nanotec Cnr in Bari.

This is how Paolo Tosi, professor of experimental physics at the department of Physics, poses the problem:

One of the main problems with the use of renewable energy sources — explains — is their intermittency. Take solar energy, for instance, which is abundant yet is not available at night. To solve this problem we have to develop new and more efficient storage systems to store the energy that is not immediately used so that it can be used when we need it.

Researchers in the field of energy have long been searching for more efficient technologies that can ensure a continuous supply and increase storage options. The importance of the topic is easily understandable: the solution to these issues might make renewable sources a valuable alternative to fossil fuels.

Are there any possible solutions?

Tosi comments on the path they are following:

One way is to use renewable energy to convert carbon dioxide into fuel. This might open the way to two important advancements. First of all, solar energy would be converted into chemical energy for the production of a solar fuel, which is easy to use. Secondly, carbon dioxide would be used as a source for fuel production and would not be released in the atmosphere.
Actually, the conversion of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane in particular) into liquid fuels or other chemical compounds is generating a lot of interest and is considered one of the major challenges in the twenty-first century. In the context of our collaboration with the Differ and the Nanotec Cnr in Bari (with the group led by Giorgio Dilecce), we are using electrical discharges to split carbon dioxide and favor its hydrogenation.

In the framework of the collaboration, Richard van de Sanden, director of the Differ (Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Department of Applied Physics — Eindhoven University of Technology), visited the Atomic and Molecular Physics Laboratory of the University of Trento.

This provided the occasion for a public conference with professor van de Sanden, Plasma non-Equilibrium at work: key to success of Energy technologies?, on new technologies aimed at increasing energy efficiency, which took place on Wednesday 30 March in Trento.

Originally published at on April 19, 2016.

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