Caltech Reactor a Breakthrough for Sustainable Business
From wind turbines to solar photovoltaic cells, sustainable business ventures have produced a plethora of well-tested methods for converting renewable energy into electricity. Though much remains to be done when it comes to actually replacing coal and other fossil fuel-based electricity with a clean energy grid, there is little doubt that the technology to do so exists. A far greater challenge has been finding a truly renewable and sustainable energy source capable of replacing the petroleum-based liquid fuels used to power motor vehicles and aircraft. But scientists at the California Institute of Technology may finally be closing in on a solution.
According to an article in the peer-reviewed journal Science, experiments spearheaded by Professor Sossina Haile of Caltech have succeeded in combining carbon dioxide and water to produce a liquid fuel. The catalyst that facilitates the reaction is the element cerium, and the extremely high temperatures at which the reaction occurs are created by concentrating solar energy. In other words researchers have found a way to do something vaguely similar to what plants do every day: harness the energy of sunlight to convert carbon and water into a liquid fuel.
If cerium solar reactors were ever used on a large scale, it would be a breakthrough for sustainable liquid fuels. So far biofuels are about the best replacement for gasoline and diesel that sustainable business has been able to find. But biofuels—whether made from corn, sugar cane, or palm oil—come with a host of their own problems and questions attached. If their production involves energy-intensive farming methods or the clearing of large tracts of rainforest, the carbon footprint of biofuels may be equal to or even greater than that of gasoline. Though plant-based fuels may eventually be developed that make a real dent in climate change, it so far seems biofuels are no silver bullet solution to our energy problems.