UIC's artificial leaf in action ©University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine
UIC's artificial leaf in action ©University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine

Fake leaf recycles CO2 into new fuel

Scientists have turned carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into energy using technology that mimics a leaf.

They believe the process has the potential to render traditional gas and petroleum fossil fuels obsolete.

While a normal solar panel converts sunlight into electricity, the device created by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) mimics photosynthesis - where a plant uses sunlight to convert water and CO2 into glucose and oxygen. But instead of sugar, this artificial leaf turns CO2 in the atmosphere into a burnable gas.

“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic, it’s photosynthetic,” said Amin Saleh-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and the study’s senior author.

It uses traditional photovoltaic solar cells to power a form of electrolysis, and can work off average intensity sunlight. The mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide produced can be immediately burned or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.

UIC said in theory the technology can be scaled up and used in the same way as solar farms today, and could solve the problem of how to balance the natural fluctuations in solar energy production without expensive batteries.

The process also has the benefit of removing CO2 from the atmosphere, at least until the gas is burned. 

“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,” said Saleh-Khojin.

UIC said it has filed a provisional patent application, but not yet set a timeline for developing the technology.

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