Solar fuel cells develop in Sweden.

By Dave Armstrong - 28 Jan 2015 7:34:0 GMT
Solar fuel cells develop in Sweden.

In the Mediterranean climates of California, Australia and Europe and the deserts such as those of the Middle East, solar farms seem to spring up naturally. Are we really expecting newer technologies to transform this remarkable industry into the prime energy provider for the whole planet. We probably should, but there is a limit to current possibilities. Maybe, in May in Uppsala, with the Paris conference on climate to spur us on, solar will finally make that final step to fuel our future.Solar farm image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The claims of Uppsala University are that its research is leading to novel storage of energy. We all want free electricity from our roof, but the reality is that it must be transferred to the grid, to be used immediately, rather than charging a battery. Making hydrogen or alcohol from water and carbon dioxide would create a storage chemical as has been tried several times recently in many laboratories in the California, Colorado and Singapore This would then be burnt to release the energy when required. Basically, the aim is to copy photosynthesis, which makes fuel from water and carbon dioxide in a similar way.

The dual catalyst that Uppsala have proposed to avoid using up energy is a tungsten hybrid complex. Removing energy from the complex with the weakest possible oxidants and bases, both of these recipients became part of a concerted reaction. Researchers claim that the essence of the process is in the speed of reaction, making hydrogen gas with new catalytic complexes. Stenbjörn Styring leads one of the research teams in Sweden's leading solar energy programme, with Swedish Energy Agency grants of SEK 80 million to oil the wheels of photosynthetic simulations!

So far, other labs have come up with both simple and complex artificial leaves. Simple leaves have been developed since the first was invented in Colorado. Household uses have been suggested and there are certainly cheap methods of using solar energy with a type of solar card. Panasonic, in Osaka, even have a fuel cell that makes formic acid. This could be easily transformed to alcohol fuels or carbohydrates. The latter provide gas for use in the latest hydrogen-powered cars (such as this Toyota, which can also power your house for a week ) ) or simply for pure electricity generation.

All will become as clear as possible in May, when Uppsala is hosting the International Solar Fuels Conference. We remember that climate change is driving the bus taking us to a carbon-free future. Solar energy so far is displacing wind energy as the prime renewable, after old-fashioned hydro-electric power of course. If we can utilise the energy of the sun in furnaces, artificial photosynthesis or even in burning alcohol, that future will provide a free passage. If the struggle to copy photosynthesis continues, those who continue with fossil fuels will have every excuse to cloud our future.