Reactor for producing fuel from sunlight

Sossina Haile and William Chueh next to the benchtop thermochemical reactor used to screen materials for implementation on the solar reactor.

This is a follow up to prior coverage on this project to make fuel from sunlight

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are using a common metal most famously found in self-cleaning ovens to change our energy future. The metal is cerium oxide—or ceria—and it is the centerpiece of a promising new technology developed by Haile and her colleagues that concentrates solar energy and uses it to efficiently convert carbon dioxide and water into fuels.

The researchers designed and built a two-foot-tall prototype reactor that has a quartz window and a cavity that absorbs concentrated sunlight.

The ETH-Caltech solar reactor for producing H2 and CO from H2O and CO2 via the two-step thermochemical cycle with ceria redox reactions.

At the heart of the reactor is a cylindrical lining of ceria. Ceria—a metal oxide that is commonly embedded in the walls of self-cleaning ovens, where it catalyzes reactions that decompose food and other stuck-on gunk—propels the solar-driven reactions. The reactor takes advantage of ceria’s ability to “exhale” oxygen from its crystalline framework at very high temperatures and then “inhale” oxygen back in at lower temperatures.

In the short term, Haile and her colleagues plan to tinker with the ceria formulation so that the reaction temperature can be lowered, and to re-engineer the reactor, to improve its efficiency. Currently, the system harnesses less than 1% of the solar energy it receives, with most of the energy lost as heat through the reactor’s walls or by re-radiation through the quartz window. “When we designed the reactor, we didn’t do much to control these losses,” says Haile. Thermodynamic modeling by lead author and former Caltech graduate student William Chueh suggests that efficiencies of 15% or higher are possible.

Ultimately, Haile says, the process could be adopted in large-scale energy plants, allowing solar-derived power to be reliably available during the day and night. The CO2 emitted by vehicles could be collected and converted to fuel, “but that is difficult,” she says. A more realistic scenario might be to take the CO2 emissions from coal-powered electric plants and convert them to transportation fuels. “You’d effectively be using the carbon twice,” Haile explains. Alternatively, she says, the reactor could be used in a “zero CO2 emissions” cycle: H2O and CO2 would be converted to methane, would fuel electricity-producing power plants that generate more CO2 and H2O, to keep the process going.

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