Scientists Can Make Liquid Fuel Using Sunlight

Harvard professor Daniel Nocera has been pushing the boundaries of alternative fuel research, and has now found a way to create hydrogen fuel cells.

Back in 2011, Nocera found a way of harnessing sunlight using silicon, which seemingly opened the door to creating hydrogen fuel cells. However infrastructure for a hydrogen-fueled economy was nonexistent, and that remains true today. In order to overcome this significant problem, Nocera teamed up with Harvard colleagues, including Jeffery Way and Pamela Silver, writes Michael Casey of CBS News.

Using microorganisms to produce liquid fuel

The research team fed hydrogen to Ralstonia eutropha, a soil bacterium, which combined the hydrogen with carbon dioxide and produced liquid fuel for the first time. Producing liquid fuel using hydrogen fuel cells enables Nocera to overcome the infrastructure issue and integrate the fuel into our existing economy.

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However significant further research is required in order to improve the efficiency of the process, which currently only converts 1% of available sunlight into liquid fuel. The fuel would only become a viable alternative to existing fuels if 10% efficiency can be achieved.

Solar fuel technology is an area of great interest to scientists, and the Department of Energy is investing $1.22 million over 5 years in the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, which is the largest research program into the technology. However this latest breakthrough was made at the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose mission is to use microorganisms to create liquid fuel.

Criticism from fellow scientists

The approach is not without its critics within the scientific community. Stephen Mayfield, director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, said that other scientists had already managed to “turn electrons into biomass” and the research did not solve any issues. He went on to add that the carbon costs of constructing the infrastructure necessary for such a project would prevent it from ever being carbon neutral.

Nocera defended his research by claiming that infrastructure is necessary in any new project, and if everyone took Mayfield’s approach there would be no further research into renewable energy.

“It takes carbon to build silicon but people have shown that the payback is a few years in terms of it becoming carbon neutral,” he said. It seems as though Nocera will continue his research in the field, but not without vocal opposition from other members of the scientific community.