Scientists have engineered a solar cell that uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into burnable hydrocarbon fuel.
Researchers at the University of Illinois say the artificial leaves imitate photosynthesis and could one day provide a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
A solar farm of the artificial leaves would remove significant quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing fuel efficiently, researchers claimed.
Amin Salehi-Khojin, a senior author on the study, said that the “leaves” could even be used to generate fuel on Mars, which has an atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide, if the planet harbours water.
He explained that the energy source is more environmentally friendly than conventional fuel: “Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”
Plants produce sugar from sunlight and carbon dioxide, but these artificial leaves create synthesis gas (syngas), a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide.
Syngas can be burned or converted into diesel and other hydrocarbon fuels.
Solar energy technology is advancing rapidly. Earlier this month, Elon Musk announced his latest master plan, which included an ambitious vision to turn homes into power stations.
By merging two of his companies Tesla and SolarCity, Musk hopes to create a single defining product.
He wrote: “A smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world.”