Amazing Artificial Solar Cell Turns CO2 into Energy

A breakthrough has been made in regards to solar power that could be a game-changer. Researchers have found a way to effectively convert the carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere into a hydrocarbon fuel by only using solar power. The team at the University of Illinois filed a provisional patent earlier in the year once they realized what they had discovered.


By converting CO2 into usable fuel, there are two issues being addressed at once. The first is that the CO2 is being removed from the atmosphere, leaving it cleaner, and the second is that it’s producing clean energy at an efficient pace. Rather than being a photovoltaic cell like most solar cells these days, this one is photosynthetic.

Amin Salehi-Khojin is senior author on the study and he commented, “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.” The new solar cells produce syngas (a mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide) which can be burned in its natural form, or it can be converted into useful hydrocarbon fuels.


Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas.
Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas.
Amin Salehi-Khojin (left), UIC assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi with their breakthrough solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas.
Amin Salehi-Khojin (left), UIC assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi with their breakthrough solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas.

Out of all the catalysts, the group tested as part of the study, the best they found was nanoflake tungsten deselenide. Mohammed Asadi, the UIC postdoctoral researcher, said: “The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide’s chemical bonds.” It’s also about 20 times cheaper and 1,000 faster than noble-metal catalysts. The artificial leaf itself uses two silicon cells to harvest light; a tungsten diselenide and ionic liquid co-catalyst system, and a potassium phosphate electrolyte on the other side. Asadi said, “The hydrogen ions diffuse through a membrane to the cathode side, to participate in the carbon dioxide reduction reaction.”


This is a remarkable breakthrough for renewables and could leave fossil fuels gasping for a space in the market. Hopefully soon the technology will be readily available and easily adaptable for both small and large operations and could even be useful on Mars one day. But for now, we just have to make do with making the most out of it on Earth.


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