Last week, Caltech Professor of Materials Science and ChemicalEngineering Sossina Haile and a team of Swiss researchers are one stepcloser to developing liquid fuel from sunlight after discovering acommonly used element can do the trick. Earlier this week, Haile sharedthe findings of her research and her hope for the future with NPR. Youcan listen to it here, or read the details of the study that we’ve pulled out.
Cerium — found mostly in glass polishing formulas and phosphors usedfor screens and fluorescent lamps — is a metal that oxidizes in air.Haile and her team have discovered that when the metal reaches nearly3,000 degrees Fahrenheit it can turn carbon dioxide and water into fuel. But if you use dirty energy to get the element up to that temperature,the process is counterproductive. That’s where solar comes in.
This past summer, the research team was able to use solar energy toheat a device to get the cerium up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At onepercent, the efficiency rate is clearly far too low to hit the market,but it’s certainly a step in the right direction in terms of being ableto capture solar energy to develop liquid fuel. What’s particularlyinteresting is that the same piece of cerium can be used many times over because it doesn’t lose its chemical properties through the reactionprocess.
Haile also has a partner in the Duke University chemistry departmentnamed Erik Toone, who wants to use his biology background to help Haile. As he puts it, they’re both trying to do the same thing: use solarphotons to develop high-efficiency liquid fuel. Toone thinks the process is still between 10 and 15 years away from widespread use, but when itdoes catch on, it’s likely to be a major game-changer in the energyindustry.
Haile hopes to get the efficiency level up around ten percent. And of course, the technology would have to be cost effective in order toreally catch on with the general public.