Researchers at Glasgow University are currently developing a possibly innovative new form of fuel, with inspiration from an unexpected place, plants. The inter-disciplinary Glasgow University Solar Fuel group is improving upon the idea of photosynthesis to create a more efficient method of using solar power.
Essentially, the idea is to harness solar power and other renewable forms of energy and store it as solar fuel which can be used later. The advantages of this are numerous. Whilst renewable forms of energy, such as solar energy, do not damage the environment, the energy cannot be stored for an extended period of time and there is no way of generating it when it is dark, or the wind is not blowing. Furthermore, the researchers aim to include carbon into this new fuel. Combining carbon and renewable energy in this new fuel adds a whole new possibility to this research; hypothetically, when the fuel is burned it would release CO2, which could then be reused to store energy. Effectively, this would create a closed carbon cycle that could potentially counteract the damaging effects of fossil fuels.
When I spoke to Professor Lee Cronin, co-chairperson of Glasgow Solar Fuels, he seemed excited about the potential of the research, although emphasized that more development is needed. ‘Our main question at the moment is, is it conceptually possible? However, I do think that Scotland is the opportune place to test this theory on a large scale because of the truly incredible wind energy on the coast and the already existing pipeline infrastructure. These two factors will hopefully mean our research will receive the support and funding that it needs.’
It will possibly take millions of pounds and decades until an efficient model can be produced, but Professor Cronin believes the potential benefits of the idea far outweigh the cost. ‘I think that people will begin to realise that the financial and human cost of the droughts, floods and other national disasters caused by fossil fuels is ultimately far higher than the cost of a renewable, clean energy that could reverse these effects. In the next 20 years we will see war and famine and droughts…hopefully this research could prevent that.’