PhotoWhile automakers are scrambling to win the race for autonomous vehicles, eco-conscious consumers may be more interested in developments regarding clean-burning fuels. Concerns over global warming and climate change continue to mount, and scientists are continuously working on new ways to provide energy at a lower environmental cost.

Now, a group of researchers from the University of Toronto (UoT) believe that carbon dioxide may be the answer. They theorize that using silicon could enable the energy sector to turn carbon dioxide emissions into an energy-rich fuel source. The best part, they say, is that this new energy source would generate no harmful emissions in the exchange.

Using silicon

Experts have thought of using carbon dioxide as a fuel source for some time, but up to this point they couldn’t produce a material that met the necessary qualifications, of which there are many.

“A chemistry solution to climate change requires a material that is a highly active and selective catalyst to enable the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuel. It also needs to be made of elements that are low cost, non-toxic and readily available,” said Geoffrey Ozin, a chemistry professor at UoT and head of its Solar Fuels Research Cluster.

However, silicon could potentially be a perfect element for this process; it is the seventh most abundant element in the whole universe and the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, so finding enough of it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Clean-burning fuel source

Scientists believe that they could produce energy via silicon by allowing it to convert carbon dioxide with the aid of natural sunlight. In basic terms, engineers would create or harvest silicon nanocrystals that would absorb sunlight. As a result, these crystals could convert carbon emissions into carbon monoxide, which could be used as an energy source.

“Making use of the reducing power of nanostructured hydrides is a conceptually distinct and commercially interesting strategy for making fuels directly from sunlight,” said Ozin.

While researchers are currently working towards finding ways to increase the activity of the nanocrystals, enhance the scale, and boost production rates, they believe that they can eventually create a demonstration unit, which could lead to a pilot solar refinery if successful.

The full study has been published in Nature Communications

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