'Liquid Sunlight' Could Produce Oxygen and Clean Fuel for Future Mars Colonies
Scientists at Berkeley are hard at work creating what they've named "liquid sunlight," a process by which solar light is used to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen, fuel, and other chemical compounds.
It's a revolutionary idea; if there's one thing that planet Earth has an overabundance of right now, it's carbon dioxide. Lead scientist Peidong Yang's idea involves taking the nasty byproducts of pollution and turning them into fuel, both replacing our old-fashioned reliance on petroleum, and using up some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In order to do this, the team has spent the last 10 years looking really closely at plants, and the way that natural photosynthesis uses sunlight to strip the oxygen from carbon dioxide and instead create various types of plant food.
While it's clear that this process works just fine in nature, finding the right materials to successfully trap and manipulate sunlight has proven difficult. This isn't the same process as solar power cells, as sunlight isn't directly transformed into energy - instead, it involves using light as the catalyst to turn carbon into fuel that can be put to use in a variety of situations.
After a lot of work, the team now has a prototype; a system that involves bubbling carbon dioxide through water, which, when exposed to sunlight, can produce fuel, polymers, and even the initial pharmaceutical intermediates necessary to make drugs.
Medical drugs, that is—a lot of research has already been done into bubbling gas through water in order to produce a more illicit reaction within the body.
Yang sees his technology as the future of fuel for a variety of uses, with gas stations boasting large, artificial leafy roofs that produce fuel that can be pumped directly into cars.
There's also a possibility that the technology could be used in outer space, with sunlight providing astronauts with oxygen while simultaneously generating energy, supplies, or even fertilizer (Yang namedrops The Martian as a movie that would have been simpler if the characters had been blessed with access to his invention).
It remains to be seen whether this new emerging artificial photosynthesis can prove more effective than other forms of clean, renewable fuel. Certainly, as much as Yang might like to see his work providing fuel for Martian colonists, the fact that the Red Planet is further away from the sun means that less light arrives there to begin with, making solar power that little bit more difficult to generate.
That said, the true selling point of liquid sunlight is its effect on the environment, providing a way to use up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus reduce greenhouse gasses, all while generating resources that will be useful to humanity going forward.
As this technology develops, it could be instrumental in helping us to fix the mistakes that we've already made with our planet's atmosphere, all while helping us to fuel our cars - a net win for humanity in general!