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Experimental rooftop reactor generates liquid fuel from sunlight

Saturday, March 12, 2011 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: sunlight, fuel, health news

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(NaturalNews) Researchers have designed a device that uses solar power to produce the components of liquid fuels, mimicking the process by which plants convert sunlight into sugar to fuel their own cells.

Although solar electric or wind systems can be used to provide stationary energy to homes and other buildings, they remain more impractical for transportation, which is powered best by fuels that are portable and energy dense. Batteries and nuclear reactors both tend to fail this test.

Writing in the journal Science, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) recount how they have successfully tested a device that uses a normal parabolic mirror to focus sunlight into a reaction chamber containing the metal cerium oxide and water. Cerium oxide acts as a catalyst, breaking water apart into hydrogen and carbon dioxide without being consumed itself. The hydrogen and carbon dioxide can then be used to artificially create hydrocarbon fuels.

Unlike many of the components used in modern electronics, cerium is relatively common, occurring in roughly the same frequency as copper. Like copper, however, it must be mined.

The system is also not "carbon neutral." It breaks apart water and transforms it into petroleum-like chemicals, which will release carbon dioxide when burned. The advantage of the system lies not in its environmental footprint, but in its ability to reduce dependence on dwindling oil and gas reserves.

As James Howard Kunstler warns in his book The Long Emergency, alternative energies are not necessarily pollution free.

"There is a set of erroneous popular notions to the effect that renewable energy systems such as solar power, wind power and the like are available as freestanding replacements for our fossil-fuel-based system," he writes, "that they are pollution-free and problem free - that renewables represent something akin to perpetual motion, a gift from the sun. The operation of a solar electric system, like the one I run on an Adirondack Lake, does not itself produce pollution, but the manufacturing of the components certainly does."

The Caltech researchers are far from alone in looking for ways to replace fossil liquid fuels. Researchers at Berkeley National Laboratory, Imperial College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are all working on developing similar systems.

Sources for this story include: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/d...

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