Lead boffin Rich Diver poses next to the nearly-finished CR5 sunlight-to-fuel converter prototype.
A team at Sandia National Laboratories
thinks it may have a new toy for generating a variety of fuels – including hydrogen, methanol, and even petrol and diesel – from thin air.
Dubbed the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor (or CR5) the device is designed to break the carbon-oxygen bond within carbon dioxide to form oxygen and carbon monoxide using concentrated solar energy. Okay, so it doesn't exactly
make petrol from 'thin air', but bear with me on this one.
The original idea, as described by the brains behind the scheme Rich Diver, was to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The team soon realised that the same system could be used to break down carbon dioxide instead. Carbon dioxide and water are both by-products of the combustion process, so the scheme to take the waste products and turn them back into fuel has eco-warriors delighted.
The hydrogen and carbon monoxide the system recovers can be used as the starting block for synthesised versions of various fossil fuels which can then be used again and again in much the same way as we purify waste water for drinking. The system isn't lossless, of course, but anything which gives us a bit more bang per gallon of crude has to be a good thing.
The fuels created using the system would be carbon-neutral and, wonder of wonders, work in existing engines (including generators and vehicles) without the need for any modification.
The team is currently putting the finishing touches to the prototype, having already proven the science works well enough to be practical. Sadly for anyone who fancies telling people they run their car on 'sunlight and air', the technology is probably about ten to fifteen years away from commercialisation: by which time we'll certainly need it.
A more likely way to turn sunlight into energy than solar cells, or are you going to rely on old-fashioned pedal-power to keep the lights on when we run out of oil? Give us the skinny over in the forums