Floating ‘synthetic leaves’ produce clean fuel – CleanTechnica


The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, have designed ultra-thin and flexible devices, which take inspiration from photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight into food. Because the low-cost, stand-alone devices are light enough to float, they can be used to generate a sustainable alternative to gasoline without taking up space on the floor.

External tests of the lightweight leaves on the River Cam – near famous Cambridge sites including the Bridge of Sighs, Wren Library and Kings College Chapel – have shown that they can convert sunlight into fuel as efficiently as plant leaves.

Dr. Virgil Andre.

This is the first time that clean fuels have been generated on water, and if scaled up, the synthetic leaves could be used in polluted waterways, in ports or even at sea, and could help reduce the global shipping industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. The results are reported in the magazine temper nature.

While renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, have become much cheaper and more available in recent years, for industries such as shipping, decarbonization is a much longer affair. About 80% of global trade is transported by cargo ships powered by fossil fuels, yet the sector has not received much attention in discussions about the climate crisis.

for several years, Professor Erwin Reisner’s Research Group At Cambridge she is working to tackle this problem by developing sustainable gasoline solutions based on the principles of photosynthesis. In 2019, they developed a file synthetic papermaking synthesis gas – a key intermediate in the production of many chemicals and pharmaceuticals – from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.

The previous prototype produced fuel by combining two light absorbers with appropriate catalysts. However, it included thick glass substrates and moisture-proof coatings, which made the device bulky.

Dr Virgil Andre from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, Youssef Hamid, co-author of the paper, and lead author, said:

“We wanted to see to what extent we could reduce the materials these devices use, while not affecting their performance,” said Reisner, who led the research. “If we can trim the material just enough that it’s light enough to float, it opens up entirely new ways to use these synthetic leaves.”

For the new version of the synthetic paper, the researchers drew inspiration from the electronics industry, where miniaturization techniques have led to the creation of smartphones and flexible displays, revolutionizing the field.

The challenge for the Cambridge researchers was how to deposit light absorbers on lightweight substrates and protect them from water intrusion. To overcome these challenges, the team made thin-film metal oxides and materials known as metal oxides that can be coated on flexible metal and plastic foils. The devices were covered with micrometer-thin, water-resistant carbon layers that prevent moisture degradation. They ended up with a device that not only works, but also looks like a real leaf.

“This study demonstrates that synthetic papers are compatible with modern manufacturing techniques, which represents an early step toward automating and increasing the production of solar fuels,” Andre said. “These papers combine the advantages of most solar fuel technologies, as they achieve a low weight for powder suspensions and the high performance of wired systems.”

Tests on new synthetic papers have shown that they can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, or reduce carbon dioxide2 for synthesis gas. While additional improvements must be made before it is ready for commercial applications, the researchers say this development opens whole new avenues in their work.

Solar farms are becoming popular in electricity production; “We envision similar farms for fuel synthesis,” Andrei said. “These could provide coastal settlements, remote islands, cover artificial ponds, or avoid water evaporation from irrigation canals.”

“Many renewable energy technologies, including solar fuel technologies, can take up a lot of land, so moving production to open water will mean that clean energy and land use are not in competition with each other,” Reisner said. “In theory, you could fold these devices and put them almost anywhere, in almost any country, which would also help with energy security.”

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, the Winton Sustainability Physics Programme, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of the United Kingdom for Research and Innovation (Ukri). Virgil Andre and Erwin Reisner are fellows at St John’s College, Cambridge.

by Sarah Collins

Courtesy of Cambridge University.

Related story: Who needs plants when you can harness solar energy with artificial leaves?

Featured image courtesy of Dr. Virgil Andre, University of Cambridge.



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