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Game-Changing Photocell Turns Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

An American breakthrough might provide a new approach to fuel production and reducing carbon emissions. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have developed a solar cell that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a cheap and usable hydrocarbon fuel, using only sunlight.

"The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it's photosynthetic, Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight." said Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study, in a statement.

The findings are reported in Science, and they showcase a technology that could produce fuel at a cost comparable to the current price of gasoline. The cell acts in a similar way to a leaf. While plants convert CO2 and light into oxygen and sugars, the solar cell produces Syngas, a portmanteau for synthetic gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can either be burned directly or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.

The technological success was possible thanks to a nanoflake tungsten diselenide, a specially engineered catalyst which made the reaction 1,000 times faster and 20 times cheaper than using regular noble-metal catalysts.

"The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide's chemical bonds," said UIC postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi, first author on the paper. The researchers have applied for a provisional patent for the technology.

There are about 1.2 billion motor vehicles around the world, which includes everything from motorbikes to heavy duty trucks. Climate change is a clear and present threat to all of us, so we need to strive to move towards a renewable future but we need to be realistic on how to get there. Sustainable production of fuels, combined with better management of resources and energy efficiency, seems like a sound strategy to move beyond fossil fuels.

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