University of Illinois researchers develop artificial leaf that turns CO2 into fuel

Source: By Ally Marotti, Chicago Tribune • Posted: Tuesday, August 23, 2016

UIC researchers develop artificial leaf that turns CO2 into fuelUniversity of Illinois at Chicago researchers have developed a way to mimic plants’ ability to convert carbon dioxide into fuel, a way to decrease the amounts of harmful gas in the atmosphere and produce clean energy.The artificial leaf essentially recycles carbon dioxide, said Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and lead researcher on the project.And it’s powered entirely by the sun, mimicking the real photosynthesis process.

“Real leaves use the energy from the sun and convert carbon dioxide to sugar,” Salehi-Khojin said. “In the artificial leaf that we built, we use the sun and we convert CO2 to (synthetic gas), which can be converted to any hydrocarbon, like gasoline.”

Here’s how it works: The energy of the sun rearranges the chemical bonds of the carbon dioxide. So the sun’s energy is being stored in the form of chemical bonds, which can be burned as fuel, Salehi-Khojin said.

The ability to store the sun’s energy that way could solve a problem the clean tech community faces with battery storage.

Technology surrounding wind turbines and solar panels has developed enough that those forms of energy harvesting are becoming economically viable, and large corporations are increasingly sourcing power from wind and solar farms. But a way to store that energy — so wind and solar power can be used on demand — is not as readily available.

UIC’s development could push renewable energy technology forward, said Professor Michael R. Wasielewski, executive director of the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University.

“Whether you use solar or whether you use wind as a source of electricity, you have a source that’s intermittent and not storable, so what you need to do is find a storage method,” he said. This artificial leaf closes “the carbon cycle so you don’t have any excess CO2, so it’s an environmentally friendly way of storing this renewable energy.”

A study presenting their research was published July 29 in the journal “Science.” A patent is pending on the technology. Salehi-Khojin received a National Science Foundation grant for about $330,000 last summer to help with the research.

Scientists around the world have been studying carbon reduction, as this type of reaction is called, for years, Salehi-Khojin said. The team at UIC found a catalyst that was able to break down the chemical bonds of carbon dioxide better than the silver and gold traditionally used in the process.

Salehi-Khojin said he thinks a prototype could be ready in about five years, given the help of an industry partner. He envisions putting it in solar farms next to power plants so it could recycle carbon dioxide from the plant, then the plant could use the power it generates.

California Institute of Technology Professor Nathan Lewis, who has been studying solar fuels and artificial photosynthesis for more than 40 years, said UIC’s development is only a small piece of an eventual solar fuel product that can be widely implemented.

“There’s a lot of steps that need to occur to envision how these things would translate into a commercializable system, but it’s a step for building a piece of a full system that may be useful,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people to really push this over the goal line.”