A widely-used gas that is currently produced from fossil fuels can instead be made by an 'artificial leaf' that uses only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, and which could eventually be used to develop a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol. The carbon-neutral device sets a new benchmark in the field of solar fuels, after researchers at the University of Cambridge demonstrated that it can directly produce the gas -- called syngas -- in a sustainable and simple way.

Rather than running on fossil fuels, the artificial leaf is powered by sunlight, although it still works efficiently on cloudy and overcast days. And unlike the current industrial processes for producing syngas, the leaf does not release any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

Syngas is currently made from a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and is used to produce a range of commodities, such as fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fertilizers.

"You may not have heard of syngas itself but every day, you consume products that were created using it. Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle and establishing a sustainable chemical and fuel industry," said senior author Professor Erwin Reisner from Cambridge's Department of Chemistry, who has spent seven years working towards this goal.

The device Reisner and his colleagues produced is inspired by photosynthesis -- the natural process by which plants use the energy from sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food. On the artificial leaf, two light absorbers, similar to the molecules in plants that harvest sunlight, are combined with a catalyst made from the naturally abundant element cobalt. When the device is immersed in water, one light absorber uses the catalyst to produce oxygen. The other carries out the chemical reaction that reduces carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, forming the syngas mixture.

As an added bonus, the researchers discovered that their light absorbers work even under the low levels of sunlight on a rainy or overcast day. "This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months," said PhD student Virgil Andrei, first author of the paper. "You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world."

The research was carried out in the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry in the University's Department of Chemistry. It was co-funded by the Austrian government and the Austrian petrochemical company OMV, which is looking for ways to make its business more sustainable.

(Source: Agriculture and Food News, ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com)

Photo Credit: Virgil Andre