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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Let The Sunshine In: UNH Team 'Photosynthesizes' Liquid Solar Fuel From Carbon Emissions

An electron microscope view of the researchers' new cobalt-and-urea material after photocatalyzing carbon dioxide using sunlight.
Credit UNH/Gonghu Li
An electron microscope view of the researchers' new cobalt-and-urea material after photocatalyzing carbon dioxide using sunlight.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found a new way to make sustainable fuel out of sunlight.

The process is an artificial form of photosynthesis – where plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into energy.

Here, researchers combined cobalt and urea – both cheap and abundant – to make a yellow material that absorbs sunlight.

That lets the material reduce carbon dioxide from the air into component parts that can be stored as a combustible liquid fuel.

Associate chemistry professor Gonghu Li says their discovery could make this process cheaper and more efficient than ever. 

"One advantage of our material over the previous materials is that we can make this from sustainable or renewable starting materials,” he says.

When burned, the so-called "solar fuel" emits carbon, he says – but no more carbon than was taken out of the atmosphere to make it.

"So this is a carbon-neutral process,” Li says. “But the nice part about this process is we take sunlight as renewable energy and what we got out of the process is heat or work."

Li says the resulting fuel could replace fossil fuels that emit new carbon, like gasoline or heating oil, helping to reduce the carbon emissions that worsen the impacts of climate change.

His team got federal funding and resources from a national laboratory to pursue the research.

He says they hope to keep working with the Department of Energy on making the process commercially viable.

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Annie Ropeik joined NHPR’s reporting team in 2017, following stints with public radio stations and collaborations across the country. She has reported everywhere from fishing boats, island villages and cargo terminals in Alaska, to cornfields, factories and Superfund sites in the Midwest.
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