Scientists tell us that carbon levels in the atmosphere are at the highest levels in 3 million years and while politicians debate what to do about it, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are putting forth a potential fuel solution, harnessing a carbon-neutral source of energy: the sun.
Solar energy is not a new concept but the team at the Berkeley Lab have created an artificial forest that captures solar energy, converts it into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to power fuel cells and produce renewable energy. The ‘forest’ is actually nanowire trees which absorbs sunlight and then mimics the natural process of photosynthesis that trees and plants usually perform. Says Peidong Yang, chemist and team leader of the project:
To facilitate solar water-splitting in our system, we synthesized tree-like nanowire heterostructures, consisting of silicon trunks and titanium oxide branches. Visually, arrays of these nanostructures very much resemble an artificial forest.
An hour of sunlight can provide enough energy to power all of humankind’s needs for a year – the trouble is capturing it and transforming it into hydrogen at a cost cheaper than mining for fossil fuels (our current carbon-loaded method). Currently the nanowire forest only has 0.12 percent solar-to-fuel efficiency rate, but the fake forest is a ‘blueprint’ for the possibilities of carbon neutral fuel sources and a step closer to saving the planet that we have both knowingly and unknowingly harmed over the centuries.