Scientists at UIC just brought us closer than ever to a carbon-neutral future. A group of researchers in the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have constructed a new kind of solar cell that grabs carbon out of the air and recycles it into fuel. The cell, known as an artificial leaf, mimics photosynthesis—the process plants use to convert sunlight and carbon into energy. The result is a cheap, clean, and renewable fuel source that could be used on a large scale, and has the potential to make fossil fuels obsolete. A provisional patent application for the technology has already been filed.
Professor Robert Klie and graduate student Patrick Phillips, both of the UIC Department of Physics, contributed research that helped perfect the artificial leaf. Their involvement comes out of a longstanding collaboration between Professor Klie’s lab and an engineering group led by Professor Amin Salehi-Kohjin. The team’s latest findings were published in the July 29 issue of Science.
Professor Klie’s group used a high-powered microscope to look at the active surfaces of the artificial leaf cell in order to understand exactly how these surfaces behaved with the ionized liquid that was used in the photosynthesis process. They discovered that certain atomic configurations worked best with the catalyst materials on the leaf’s surface. From there, they worked with the engineering team to help create optimal reaction pathways along the artificial leaf. Professor Klie explains, “Our findings were fundamental in developing and understanding the mechanisms of the fuel cell. Without knowing the precise atomic structure of the active catalyst, the theoretical group would not have any starting point to model the reaction pathways or even the interaction between the catalyst and the ionic liquid. Our results, showing that a specific configuration of edge atoms is preferred, provided the starting point for the modeling and fuel cell optimization process.”
The new fuel cell has far-reaching implications—all the way to Mars. If water is discovered on Mars, the cell’s carbon-grabbing technology makes it a perfect fit for the carbon-rich atmosphere on the red planet.
Read more about this fascinating project and watch a video about the artificial leaf at UIC News.