synthetic oil

Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that convertsatmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas.

It takes a while to make oil – a few hundred million years in fact, which means an awful lot of hanging about. But suppose you could make fuel as you go along.

Now engineers from the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) claim to have done precisely that. The idea is to use solar energy that could convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into a fuel, and at a cost that is not dissimilar to the cost of gasoline.

The explanation runs like this: “Unlike conventional solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries, the new device essentially does the work of plants, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, solving two crucial problems at once. A solar farm of such ‘artificial leaves’ could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and produce energy-dense fuel efficiently.”

Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC said: "Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

The technology should be adaptable, not only for large-scale use, such as solar farms, but also to small-scale applications. Salehi-Khojin said: “In the future it may prove useful on Mars, whose atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, if the planet is also found to have water.”

The researchers at UIC are not the only ones looking at this type of idea. Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zuric have been working on using the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide into synthetic fuel.

Ivo Alxneit, a chemist at the PSI’s Solar Technology Laboratory explained that their work would allow “solar energy to be stored in the form of chemical bonds. He expanded: “It’s easier than storing electricity.”

And that brings us to the oil cycle and north Africa.

The oil price goes up and down over time. But suppose the technology to develop synthetic oil really did advance such that it was no longer necessary to go drilling for oil and in the process release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but instead fuel production became a renewable process, and also meant an almost unlimited supply of fuel.

It is especially an opportunity for regions that get lots of sun, hence potentially lots of surplus solar power. And that just happens to be north Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The technology may disrupt the oil industry, but that may not be such a problem for OPEC members.