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Putting sunshine in the tank

Posted on 5 July 2011

Scientists from the University of York are part of a team working on how to use the energy of the Sun to make fuels, which could help to solve the world’s escalating energy crisis.

Together with researchers from the Universities of Manchester, East Anglia (UEA), and Nottingham, they are working to harness the vast energy of the Sun to produce clean fuel, using nanotechnology 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. 

This technology could revolutionise our energy usage in the coming decades

Professor Robin Perutz

The scientists are presenting their research at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition which opens today (5 July 2011). 

Members of the consortium at UEA have already found a way to produce hydrogen from water. A revolutionary future use of this technology could be to make the fuel for hydrogen-powered cars, rather than making it from fossil fuel.

Now the scientists are aiming to use the same technology to create alternatives for other fuels and feedstock chemicals, including turning methane into liquid methanol and carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

The Sun’s potential is vast – just one hour of sunlight is equivalent to the amount of energy used over the world in an entire year – yet no one has yet tapped into its immense power to make fuels.

Professor Robin Perutz, from the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, said: "This is the most challenging scientific project I have ever been involved in, but it will be the most rewarding if we can bring it off. It's no use sitting back and hoping that someone else will work out how to harness the Sun's energy. This technology could revolutionise our energy usage in the coming decades."

The use of solar panels – using the Sun to power generators - is now relatively commonplace, but these only produce power in sunlight and batteries cannot store enough energy for use at nights and in winter. The group aims instead to use the Sun’s light to make fuel using nanotechnology that mimics photosynthesis – the process that plants use to create starch with energy from the Sun.

In order to create solar fuel, sunlight must be converted into usable materials. The team of researchers, which is led by Professor Wendy Flavell from the University of Manchester, is working to create a solar-nano device using ‘quantum dots’ – tiny clusters of semiconducting material which absorb sunlight.

When sunlight is absorbed, carriers of electric current are created.  Together with catalyst molecules grafted to the surfaces of the dots, these create the new fuel – for example hydrogen can be produced from water.

Professor Flavell said: “Our Sun provides far more energy than we will ever need, but we use it really inefficiently. To make better use of the fantastic resource we have in our Sun, we need to find out how to create solar fuel that can be stored, shipped to where it is needed and used on demand.

“Most hydrogen so far is obtained from fossil fuels, which are of course not going to last for ever, so it is important to get energy from renewable sources. One of the key questions is: ‘what do we do when the Sun goes down, what happens at night?’ If we can store the energy harnessed from the Sun during the day then we will have supplies ready to use when the Sun is not shining. This is a first step in taking the vast power of the Sun and using it to provide the world’s fuel needs.” 

At the exhibition, the team will be displaying an interactive world map which will show children and other visitors just how much energy the Sun provides.

There will also be a chance to see the quantum dots at work, and show how, simply by changing the size of the dots, the colour of light they absorb or give out can be changed.

A solar cell that produces hydrogen directly from the electricity generated will also be on display and there will be a chance to race solar-powered and hydrogen-powered model racing cars.

Notes to editors:

  • The exhibit is described at the Royal Society Science Live webpage: royalsociety.org/summer-science/2011/solar-nanotech/
  • The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition showcases cutting edge research in science and engineering from across the UK. It is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. Follow the Summer Science Exhibition on Twitter at www.twitter.com/summerscience using the hashtag #SSE2011.
  • The Exhibition is located in the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5 AG and takes place from Tuesday 5 July to Sunday 10 July 2011. Further information can be found at royalsociety.org/summer-science/2011/.
  • Further information about the University of York’s Department of Chemistry is available at www.york.ac.uk/chemistry.
  • The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of science. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as a provider of independent scientific advice, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. Its expertise is embodied in the Fellowship, which is made up of the finest scientists from the UK and beyond. Its goals are to:
    • Invest in future scientific leaders and in innovation
    • Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice
    • Invigorate science and mathematics education
    • Increase access to the best science internationally
    • Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery.
  • For further information visit royalsociety.org.

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Caron Lett
Press Officer

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