Solar rays could replace petroleum fuels, research shows

( -- Alternative fuel sources for cars may have a glowing future as a Kansas State University graduate student is working to replace petroleum fuels with ones made from sunlight.

Yen-Ting Kuo, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, Taiwan, has spent several years in K-State's chemistry program working to create that better use sunlight in chemical reaction processes to generate energy.

"People tend to think of chemistry as test-tube experiments and not really creating practical things. That's just not true," Kuo said. "A big focus now is on 'green chemistry.' This means wanting to have the same quality of life that we have right now, but using chemistry to replace some things with materials that are more eco-friendly, such as biodegradable products or clean fuel."

As a way to advance the clean fuel research, Kuo is making and studying metal-oxide catalysts that react with light. These catalysts, called photocatalysts, cause a chemical reaction when triggered by sunlight, but are not destroyed during the reaction. Photocatalysts are crucial to producing new fuels, like solar gasoline, which use hydrogen.

To make solar gasoline, sunlight is channeled into a tank of that contains photocatalysts. The sunlight triggers the photocatalysts to react with the water. This reaction causes the water to split into hydrogen and oxygen. When the hydrogen is combined with it forms a synthetic gas -- called syngas -- that is the basic building block in fossil fuel and can be used to power cars.

In recent years solar gasoline has been getting more mileage as more international laboratories attempt to improve and perfect the process. But developing a photocatalyst that efficiently uses sunlight to create a chemical reaction and produce hydrogen is proving difficult for researchers. It also is needed for production to reach commercial levels. Kuo is working to solve that problem by creating and analyzing new photocatalysts in the lab.

To make a photocatalyst, Kuo mixes various elements in powdered form, and then cooks them at temperatures between 700 degrees Celsius and 850 degrees Celsius.

Once the material is made, its structure is studied with a transmission electron microscope and ultraviolet spectrums. Doing this allows Kuo to look at ways to structurally improve the photocatalyst and its performance.

In addition to improving the material's photocatalytic properties -- which will intensify reaction with the sunlight -- Kuo focuses on increasing the material's surface area. An increased surface area means bigger and better reactions, and a material with a high and with high photocatalytic properties could mean a bright future for solar gasoline and other alternative fuels.

Engineering a that efficiently splits water into hydrogen and oxygen could also be a boon to fuel cell technology, Kuo said. Fuel cells operate by essentially reversing the chemical reaction that's used to split water. Hydrogen is converted into electrical power, and water is given off as a byproduct.

"Even though the mature technology of fuel cells is in the near future, the source of hydrogen is still a question since most of the hydrogen sources now are from petroleum," Kuo said. "Therefore, water splitting using photocatalysts is one of the solutions providing a new pathway to obtain ."

Kuo came to K-State after reading work published from his adviser, Ken Klabunde. Klabunde, a university distinguished professor of chemistry, is an expert in turning chemistry into new environmentally-friendly materials. He's created inorganic materials and nanotechnology that filter water and air; control odor, bacteria and viruses; and detoxify hazardous chemical spills.

Kuo will defend his dissertation, "Novel photocatalytic water splitting with the N-doped In2O3/TiO2 D10-D0 configuration composite oxide semiconductors," in mid-September. He then will begin a postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan, one of the few universities in the U.S. to study solar gasoline.

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Sep 13, 2011
First off
"People tend to think of chemistry as test-tube experiments and not really creating practical things.

Seriously, STFU. Don't alienate your field with wildly stupid assertions. Chemistry has affected medicine, batteries, paint, clothing, all plastics, and on, and on, and on. One of the largest paint and chemical companies, dupont, is a chemistry company.

More importantly, Mr accuser of chemisty, can you tell us how your process results in a practical and cheap production method of fuel? Or are you a liar, and this method in fact, is only less impractical than previous methods??

I guess i must be grumpy today.

Sep 13, 2011
This may help, but it still doesn't solve the problem.

The problem is, that we keep BURNING stuff. We need to get away from combustion-based energy sources as much as we can.

Sep 13, 2011
'Burning Stuff' is fine, as long as it's done in a cycle with no net accumulation of carbon. As of right now we're just digging up old sources of it and spewing it into the air, that's what's bad. Nature has been burning entire forests for millions of years, but it's part of a natural cycle of the biosphere.

Sep 13, 2011
"Seriously, STFU. Don't alienate your field with wildly stupid assertions." - That Tard

Seriously.... People tend to think of chemistry as test-tube experiments and not really creating practical things.
Perhaps in places like Canada and Sumatra, but in the US when we think chemistry we think monsanto and pharmaceuticals and DuPont and hair dye and DEET.

I would think burning is looked on with pleasure in Canada as it is a source of warmth, and smoke for curing back bacon?
'Burning Stuff' is fine, as long as it's done in a cycle with no net accumulation of carbon.
I wonder what's the latest on room temperature combustion -?

Sep 13, 2011
If you were to ask random people about what they think chemistry is most would probably have test tube somewheres in the answer.

You know we have power in Canada... Although its only been a year or so :P. Funny thing is though, 10 years ago we were wondering (at least in Ontario) where we would get all the power we still needed, which seemed impossible to achieve; now we have so much power we don't know what to do with it!

All I have to say is, poooooor, poooor farmers who bought solar panels to sell power to the grid and now the goverment is flipping them the bird! Can they catch a break or what?

Sep 13, 2011
Elitism stepping in once again...

Whilst I don't agree with talking down / dumbing things down for people, the author is correct in stating that most people do think of chemistry as a test-tube affair. This is a news site, not a repository of journals or papers specifically for the scientific elite.

There is nothing wrong with writing accessible articles for the lay. I appreciate it as I get to share some knowledge and trends on sites like Facebook, without having to rewrite, and more people get exposed to basic scientific concepts.

So settle down. If the pieces on this site are too simplistic for you, perhaps it's time to step up to something more your level. Science is for everyone.

Sep 14, 2011
"US when we think chemistry we think monsanto and pharmaceuticals and DuPont and hair dye and DEET." - Otto

That is interesting because when I think of the U.S. I think of the same thing. Bopahl, etc.
Otto knew you would say this. Do not forget love canal in your backyard. Also do not forget the Port Hope uranium contamination, in an effort to produce warmth?

Look what otto has found also:
"The results prove that Canada has one of the poorest environmental records of the industrialized countries."

I am surprised.

Sep 14, 2011
Link for above shameful backwoods environmental catastrophe:

You know whats annoying? Is when you post a number of links and then edit your post and every link disappears but one, along with text. Maybe physorg can FIX this little problem no?

Sep 14, 2011
working to replace petroleum fuels with ones made from sunlight.

Petroleum is made from sunlight...

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