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  • 04.08.11

Move Over Earth, Wind & Fire: Sun, Air, and Water May One Day Power Everything

Scientists at CalTech are developing a technique that converts water, air, and sunlight into different kinds of fuel that could power everything from car engines to fuel cells in cell phones. It sounds almost too good to be true.

solar car

Scientists at CalTech are perfecting a technique that converts water, air, and sunlight into different kinds of fuel that could power everything from car engines to fuel cells in cell phones. It sounds almost too good to be true, from an environmental stand-point.

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The technique for converting water and carbon dioxide into hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide–gasses that can be then recombined in different ongoing processes into useful fuel–has been known for some while. But the conversion processes tend to rely on expensive materials to aid in the chemical reactions, including rare and expensive metals like platinum.

The new technique being championed by CalTech and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology uses ceria to catalyze the conversion instead. This is oxidized cerium, and you’re likely to have already encountered it in the form of self-cleaning oven linings. Since cerium is much more abundant than the typical metals used for catalysis (100,000 times more so than platinum, for example) then the cost of the conversion process is potentially much, much lower. The raw material components are so cheap that the ultimate fuel creation process could thus be very powerful for future eco power systems.

solar reactor

The byproducts can be used to power hydrogen fuel cells for portable devices or cars–thanks to the high purity of the H2 the reactor spits out–or combined to make methane gas that can be burned in engines in a similar way to gasoline-powered engines run. Since the hydrogen and oxygen in these fuels are “harvested” from the environment, and the conversion process requires very little input apart from sun, then the carbon footprint of producing and burning the fuels is potentially very low.

In its first iteration, the experimental reactor converts just 1% of the inbound solar energy into useful fuel gasses–but the team is confident this figure can be boosted. And because sunlight is ubiquitous, as are the component input gasses, the ultimate levels of solar efficiency aren’t too crucial to the ultimate outcome.

Image via Flickr user hvnly.

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Read More: Engineered Bacteria Can Convert Sunlight, CO2 Into Diesel Fuel

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