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Scientists create ‘artificial leaf’ that sucks in carbon dioxide and makes fuel

The Independent logo The Independent 11/5/2019 Phoebe Weston
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Scientists have created an “artificial leaf” that could turn carbon dioxide into fuel. 

The new technology was inspired by the way plants use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen. The artificial leaf mimics this process – with the help of a cheap red powder called cuprous oxide – and produces methanol and oxygen.

The methanol can be collected and used as fuel by heating the solution so the water evaporates, according to the paper published in Nature Energy.

Close up shot of leafs with back light. © Copyright 2018 Syahrel Azha Hashim Close up shot of leafs with back light.

Lead researcher Yimin Wu, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo told The Independent: “This technology has achieved the solar to fuel efficiency about 10 per cent. This is already larger than the natural photosynthesis (about one per cent).

“The next step is to partner with industry companies to scale it up with a system engineering of flow cell for the production of liquid fuels. More efficient artificial leaves can be developed along the lines with industry partners,” he said.

He says it will take several years before the process is commercialised.

a close up of a blender © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

The power is created by a chemical reaction involving four substances – glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide and sodium dodecyl sulfate – which are added to water. 

In order to start the reaction, scientist heated the water to a specific temperature, blew carbon dioxide through it and shone a beam of white light onto it.

Next, researchers want to increase the amount of ethanol produced and commercialise the process by converting carbon dioxide from source – such as from power plants and oil drillling. 

Professor Wu said: “I’m extremely excited about the potential of this discovery to change the game. Climate change is an urgent problem and we can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions while also creating an alternative fuel.”

Cameron Hepburn, professor of environmental economics at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the research, said an artificial leaf could be an interesting way of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“Key is cost, scalability and their impacts on other key social objectives like the Sustainable Development Goals," he said.

© Laura Stolfi @ 2018

“If valuable products can be made from carbon dioxide, this could lower the costs of climate change mitigation in the long run.”


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