The sun is a clean and inexhaustible source of energy, with the potential to provide a sustainable answer to all future energy supply demands. There’s just one outstanding problem: the sun doesn’t always shine and its energy is hard to store. For the first time, researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zurich have unveiled a chemical process that uses the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into high-energy fuels: a procedure developed on the basis of a new material combination of cerium oxide and rhodium. This discovery marks a significant step towards the chemical storage of solar energy.
The researchers published their findings in the research journal Energy and Environmental Science.
The sun’s energy is already being harnessed in various ways: whilst photovoltaic cells convert sun light into electricity, solar thermal installations use the vast thermal energy of the sun for purposes such as heating fluids to a high temperature. Solar thermal power plants involve the large-scale implementation of this second method: using thousands of mirrors, the sun light is focused on a boiler in which steam is produced either directly or via a heat exchanger at temperatures exceeding 500 °C. Turbines then convert thermal energy into electricity.
Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zurich have collaborated to develop a ground-breaking alternative to this approach. The new procedure uses the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into synthetic fuel.