Artificial Photosynthesis: Creating fuel from sunlight

November 10, 2014
Artificial Photosynthesis: Creating fuel from sunlight
Artificial photosynthesis could replace the use of fossil fuels

Researchers have made significant progress towards developing a process of Artificial Photosynthesis (AP) that could replace the use of fossil fuels in the future.

Artificial Photosynthesis is the industrial process of preparing fuels and chemicals from nothing more than , water and sunlight. It is a vital process that would be the foundation of a world that would no longer need .

In the latest issue of Advanced Energy Materials, researchers at Monash University have got a step closer to developing an AP process and have discovered a new way of converting carbon dioxide to . Methanol is an extremely useful liquid fuel that could be used to run cars, heat homes or generate electricity in a fuel cell.

Professor Douglas MacFarlane, leader of the Energy Program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) and ARC Laureate Fellow in the School of Chemistry at Monash University, said that research groups across the world had been tackling the challenge of AP; understanding the fundamental processes that take place in photosynthesis and mimicking them in an industrial process.

"If an process can be developed that is significantly more efficient than plant-based photosynthesis, then it is conceivable that much of our fuel needs could be supplied from 'solar fuel' factories that would develop wherever sunshine and water are plentiful," said Professor MacFarlane.

"The key to this process in chemical terms is the development of new catalysts – one to oxidise water and another to absorb and reduce carbon dioxide. When the catalysts are coupled with materials that can absorb light energy, efficient generation of fuels such as methanol become possible."

Professor MacFarlane said the process had been achieved by the research team.

"We have created a photo-catalyst based on copper oxide, the surface of which is decorated with tiny carbon dots of about 2 nano-metres in size. This nano-composite material can directly convert carbon dioxide dissolved in water to methanol using only sunlight as the energy source," he said.

"Methanol is directly useful as a and can also be the building-block for many complex carbon compounds such as plastics and pharmaceuticals."

Explore further: Too green to be true? Researchers develop highly effective method for converting CO2 into methanol

More information: Li, H., Zhang, X. and MacFarlane, D. R. (2014), "Carbon Quantum Dots/Cu2O Heterostructures for Solar-Light-Driven Conversion of CO2 to Methanol." Adv. Energy Mater.. doi: 10.1002/aenm.201401077

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19 comments

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Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (4) Nov 10, 2014
LOL Sunlight still falls at less than 1350 Watts meter^-2 and for less than half the time.
Anda
1.4 / 5 (7) Nov 10, 2014
Methanol is toxic, corrosive and produces carbon dioxide... Ah! But they will use some to produce it.
Aaaand keeep on burning. Nice "green" solution...
SoylentGrin
5 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2014
Aaaand keeep on burning. Nice "green" solution...


It is "greener" than fossil fuels, in that it uses carbon already in the air, rather than pulling more out of the ground where it isn't in play.
Gasoline is toxic and corrosive as well, I'm not sure what your end-game point is here. Any kind of fuel is toxic and corrosive. You're not supposed to drink it.
Enviro Equipment Blog
not rated yet Nov 10, 2014
Methanol as a practical source is still far too long off in order for anyone to start talking about it replacing conventional fossil fuels. I still think algae-based biofuels are far more promising than Artificial Photosynthesis.
gkam
1 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2014
Look at the folks here who hope this does not work.
JoeBlue
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 10, 2014
Methanol is actually extremely toxic for humans, and is readily absorbed through the lungs. Let's not even get into the special materials required in fuel systems, the lower BTU content and various other issues like how much fuel you're throwing away to make it.

As a person who has actually worked with Methanol fuels, this is a poor idea from the barrel of bad ones.
gkam
1 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2014
Joe, it's a feedstock. But it is renewable. Isn't it nice to have that alternative?
JoeBlue
4 / 5 (1) Nov 10, 2014
Joe, it's a feedstock. But it is renewable. Isn't it nice to have that alternative?


Methanol isn't an alternative, the amount of disaster one spill can cause is dramatic. You think kids huffing gas is bad? Methanol can cause instant blindness. The amount of work you have to put into making it is the same reason why ethanol is a bad idea.
FMA
4 / 5 (4) Nov 10, 2014
Methanol is just the basic building block of other organic chemicals, if it is in a confined reactor, toxicity is not a really big problem. It has a lot less risk than nuclear reactor.

if this process works, it is going to be a good news for chemical industry.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2014
"The amount of work you have to put into making it is the same reason why ethanol is a bad idea."
-------------------------------------------

You got so caught up in your rehearsed diatribe, you missed the part where it was made by sunlight.
JoeBlue
1 / 5 (1) Nov 10, 2014
Methanol is just the basic building block of other organic chemicals, if it is in a confined reactor, toxicity is not a really big problem. It has a lot less risk than nuclear reactor.

if this process works, it is going to be a good news for chemical industry.

Meanwhile the price of feedstock jumps... There are piles of things that can go wrong.
gkam
1 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2014
"There are piles of things that can go wrong. "
--------------------------------------------

Some folk are scared of the future. When I tried to tell you about the difference when something "goes wrong" with a wind turbine, a PV array, a coal plant, or a nuclear plant, you objected.

Thank you for bringing it up.
Eikka
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
Methanol isn't an alternative, the amount of disaster one spill can cause is dramatic. You think kids huffing gas is bad? Methanol can cause instant blindness. The amount of work you have to put into making it is the same reason why ethanol is a bad idea.


The reason why they're producing methanol is because it is the simplest liquid that remains a liquid at room temperature. The process splits the carbon dioxide CO2 into carbon monoxide, which combines with hydrogen ions to form CH3OH that is formed around a carbon monoxide molecule like H3-C-O-H.

It is not a fuel in the sense that you'd fuel your car with it. Its a fuel that you can stockpile in huge quantities on-site where it is generated, and then use whenever needed. A factory that uses it for feedstock is rather built next to it, than haul it around in trucks, because APS can be done anywhere.

It's ill suited for car engines anyhow because methanol can be highly corrosive to aluminium.
Eikka
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
It would make little sense to transport methanol around for energy, because it is much more valuable to transform it into electricity on demand, and transmit the electricity.

For example, heating your house is far more efficiently done with a heat pump running on electricity than burning a fuel in a furnace. The efficiency of a methanol fuel cell is on the order of 50% and the coefficient of power form an air-to-air heatpump is anywhere from 2 to 5, so you will get at least the same amount of heat per fuel consumed and you wouldn't need a smokestack in your house.

Eikka
5 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
It has a lot less risk than nuclear reactor.


That depends entirely on how much methanol is being stored on the premises and what they're doing with it.

It is still highly toxic, and accidents happen. If you spill a million gallons of stockpiled methanol into a river, things go belly up in a hurry.

Like in Bhopal in India. The toxic gasses and chemicals released from the chemicals plant killed almost 4000 people right away, another 4000 within 2 weeks, and up to 30,000 later due to illness from contamination with methyl isocyanate and related chemicals. All told, over half a million people were injured, are still being affected by it, and the site still hasn't been cleaned up after 29 years.

The Bhopal disaster is directly comparable to Chernobyl, but nobody's paying any notice because it's not a nuclear accident, so it's not scary.

"Shit happens".
Eikka
5 / 5 (4) Nov 11, 2014
http://www.methan...ons.aspx


When responding to a highway/rail accidents involving methanol spills, what is the recommended evacuation distance?

Response actions relating to rail tankers apply equally for tankers attached to tractor haul trucks and to tank trailers towed by tractor haul trucks. In the event of a rail car derailment or tanker truck roll over, first responders should treat methanol as highly flammable and highly toxic.

In the event of accidental release as a result of the accident or some other circumstance that compromises containment, ERG2008 recommends that responders isolate and consider evacuating in all directions from the release to a radial distance of one half mile (800 meters). Ignition sources must be eliminated to a distance of at least one half mile (800 meters).

Eikka
5 / 5 (4) Nov 11, 2014
Air purifying respirators with organic vapor (OVA) cartridges are not appropriate protection against methanol vapors due to the very short service life of the OVA cartridge before it becomes saturated, and there are no means of knowing when the vapors break through and the cartridge is no longer offering protection.

The use of a supplied air respirator with a full face piece operated in a pressure-demand or other positive-pressure mode is the recommended respiratory protection. Personal protection equipment for the responders should, at a minimum, include chemical splash goggles and face shield, butyl or nitrile gloves, rubber boots, chemical resistance coveralls, and provision for supplied fresh breathing air such as full face, positive pressure SCBA.


As for the cleanup operation, that requires removal of the affected soil, which is sent out to be treated as hazardous waste. Methanol, when diluted in the ground won't evaporate away on its own.
Ulg
not rated yet Nov 16, 2014
It has a lot less risk than nuclear reactor.
Then what nuclear reactor(s)? You honestly think there are more accidents and people injured in the nuclear industry then compared to ethanol and its combustion? Low levels of ozone, and carbon particulate matter still kills people. You are kidding yourself if you think nuclear is anything but the least dangerous watt for watt for people and the environment. You would have to be burning gallons per second of it to equate to a reactor. 1 gram of reactor fuel is the same as 10,000 trainloads of coal and only 3% of that energy is extracted. The remaining 97% of the useable energy is sitting in a pool of water because of over emotional hippies that have no idea of what they are talking about instead of being treated and prepared to be used in low temperature reactors as scientists intended but the government put the kibosh on.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 17, 2014
but nobody's paying any notice because it's not a nuclear accident, so it's not scary.

Nobody is paying attention because it's local. Nuclear accidents (like Chernobyl of Fukushima) tend not to remain local.

And the reason why it hasn't been cleaned up is not because it cannot be cleaned up - but because India has chosen not to do so and just write off the area. With nuclear it's a bit different. Cleanup is impossible and you have no choice but to declare the area off limits.

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