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Prototype Device Turns Sunlight Into Fuel

December 24, 2010

A team of American and Swiss researchers have reportedly developed a unique device that can harness the Sun’s energy and turn it into fuel.

The prototype mechanism, which was the subject of an article by BBC News Science Reporter Neil Bowdler on Thursday, captures the Sun’s rays and concentrates it with a quartz window, focusing it onto a metal oxide known as cerium oxide, or ceria.

Ceria tends to exhale oxygen when it gets hot and inhale it as it cools, and in the device, that property is harnessed by pumping in carbon dioxide and/or water, which will then have its oxygen stripped from it by the cooling ceria and produce hydrogen for fuel cells, or a hydrogen/carbon monoxide blend known as “syngas” fuel, the BBC said on Thursday.

According to UPI, “The prototype is very inefficient, harnessing only between 0.7 and 0.8 percent of the solar energy taken into the vessel, but researchers say they’re confident improvements could bring that up to an efficiency of 19 percent, enough for a commercially viable device.”

The findings appear in the most recent edition of the journal Science.

“The chemistry of the material is really well suited to this process,” Sossina Haile, a member of the project team and a professor with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), told Bowdler. “This is the first demonstration of doing the full shebang, running it under (light) photons in a reactor.”

Haile downplayed comparisons to the process of photosynthesis, saying, “Yes, the reactor takes in sunlight, we take in carbon dioxide and water and we produce a chemical compound, so in the most generic sense there are these similarities, but I think that’s pretty much where the analogy ends.”

Caltech, located in Pasadena, California, currently has an enrollment of 2,175 and has produced a number of academic award winners throughout the years. The school has been home to 31 Nobel Prize winners, 55 National Medal of Science recipients, 10 National Medal of Technology honorees, and 15 faculty members who have been named California Scientist of the Year.

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