Posted tagged ‘sunlight’

Artificial photosynthesis

August 23, 2011

Artificial photosynthesis is one of the newer ways researchers are exploring to capture the energy of sunlight reaching earth.

01-photosynthetic reaction-receive sunlight as photons-transfer energy to a network of pigment protein complexes


01-Photosynthesis-basics-operation-oxygen release-hydrogen splits

Photosynthesis is the conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into usable fuel and it is typically discussed in relation to plants where the fuel is carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Using only 3 percent of the sunlight that reaches the planet, plants collectively perform massive energy conversions, converting just over 1,100 billion tons of CO2 into food sources for animals every year.

Photovoltaic Technology:

This harnessing of the sun represents a virtually untapped potential for generating energy for human use at a time when efforts to commercialize photovoltaic–cell technology are underway. Using a semiconductor–based system, photovoltaic technology converts sunlight to electricity, but in an expensive and somewhat inefficient manner with notable shortcomings related to energy storage and the dynamics of weather and available sunlight.

Artificial Photosynthesis:

01-photosynthesis system-Artificial Photosynthesis-Artificial Photosynthesis Solar energy to produce hydrogen directly used in fuel cell

Two things occur as plants convert sunlight into energy:

  • Sunlight is harvested using chlorophyll and a collection of proteins and enzymes, and
  • Water molecules are split into hydrogen, electrons, and oxygen.

These electrons and oxygen then turn the CO2 into carbohydrates, after which oxygen is expelled.

Rather than release only oxygen at the end of this reaction, an artificial process designed to produce energy for human use will need to release liquid hydrogen or methanol, which will in turn be used as liquid fuel or channeled into a fuel cell. The processes of producing hydrogen and capturing sunlight are not a problem. The challenge lies in developing a catalyst to split the water molecules and get the electrons that start the chemical process  to produce the hydrogen.

There are a number of promising catalysts available, that, once perfected, could have a profound impact on how we address the energy supply challenge:

  • Manganese directly mimics the biology found in plants.
  • Titanium Dioxide is used in dye-sensitized cell.
  • Cobalt Oxide is very abundant, stable and efficient as a catalyst

Artificial Photosynthesis Operation:

01-artificial Photosynthesis-arrays of microwave coated catalysts-split water to make hydrogen or liquid hydrocarbon fuels

Under the fuel through artificial photosynthesis scenario, nano tubes embedded within a membrane would act like green leaves, using incident solar radiation (H³) to split water molecules (H2O), freeing up electrons and oxygen (O2) that then react with carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce a fuel, shown here as methanol (CH3OH). The result is a renewable green energy source that also helps scrub the atmosphere of excessive carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

01-artificial photosynthesis solar collector to energy-concentrated solar radiation- convert photosynthesis to Hydrogen and oxygen


Plants use organic compounds that need to be continuously renewed. Researchers are looking for inorganic compounds that catalyze the needed reactions and are both efficient and widely available.

The research has been significantly boosted by the application of nano technology. It’s a good example of the step wise progress in the scientific world.

Studies earlier in the decade showed that crystals iridium efficiently drove the reduction of CO2, but iridium is extremely rare so technology that required its use would be expensive and could never be used on a large scale.

Cobalt crystals were tried. They worked, and cobalt is widely available, but the original formulations weren’t at all efficient.

Things changed with the introduction of nano technology.

The main point is that this unique approach increasing appears to be feasible. It has the advantage of harnessing solar energy in a form that can be stored and used with greater efficiency than batteries and it is at least carbon neutral.


August 22, 2011

01-solar thermal power conversion-beam radiation-direct normal irradiation-Solar-Power-in-Florida-turning solar heat into electricity

The principles of solar thermal power conversion have been known for more than a century; its commercial scale-up and exploitation, however, has only taken place since the mid 1980s. With these first large-scale 30-80 MW parabolic trough power stations, built in the California Mojave desert, the technology has impressively demonstrated its technological and economic promise. With few adverse environmental impacts and a massive resource, the sun, it offers an opportunity to the countries in the sun belt of the world comparable to that currently being offered by offshore wind farms to European and other nations with the windiest shorelines.

01-direct radiation-solar radiation-electromagnetic radiation-solar collectors-insolation

Solar thermal power can only use direct sunlight, called ‘beam radiation’ or Direct Normal Irradiation (DNI), i.e. that fraction of sunlight which is not deviated by clouds, fumes or dust in the atmosphere and that reaches the earth’s surface in parallel beams for concentration. Hence, it must be sited in regions with high direct solar radiation. Suitable sites should receive at least 2,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of sunlight radiation per m2annually, whilst best site locations receive more than 2,800 kWh/m2/year.

01-solar panels-solar power energy-solar power system-diagram_solar_power-produce electricity from solar energy example

In many regions of the world, one square kilometer of land is enough to generate as much as 100-130 Giga watt hours (GWh) of solar electricity per year using solar thermal technology. This is equivalent to the annual production of a 50 MW conventional coal- or gas-fired mid-load power plants. Over the total life cycle of a solar thermal power system, its output would be equivalent to the energy contained in more than    5 million barrels of oil2).


01-illustration_trough_collector_from_sunlight-solar collector assembly-parabolic trough solar collector

Producing electricity from the energy in the sun’s rays is a straightforward process: direct solar radiation can be concentrated and collected by a range of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technologies to provide medium- to high temperature heat.

01-concentrating solar power plants-CSP Technologies-Concentrating solar power technologies-direct solar radiation process-parabolic solar trough collectors

This heat is then used to operate a conventional power cycle, for example through a steam turbine or a Stirling engine. Solar heat collected during the day can also be stored in liquid or solid media such as molten salts, ceramics, concrete or, in the future, phase-changing salt mixtures. At night, it can be extracted from the storage medium thereby continuing turbine operation.