Shining a Light on Green Energy Generation

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently published details of a groundbreaking development describing innovative solar-powered technology that is able to synthesize multicarbon liquid drop-in fuels for cars using just carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and the power of photosynthesis.

Shining a Light on Green Energy Generation

Image Credit: Diyana Dimitrova/

Unlike other fuel alternatives, such as biofuels, this innovative method of liquid fuel production does not stand in the way of other agricultural practices, such as food production, and generates net zero emissions.

Biofuels like ethanol are a controversial technology, not least because they take up agricultural land that could be used to grow food instead.

Professor Erwin Reisner, Cambridge University

Using artificial leaves, the team has been able to produce ethanol and n-propanol in just one step, eliminating additional steps that lead to the production of byproducts like syngas.

Until the most recent breakthrough, details of which have been published in the journal Nature Energy, artificial leaves were primarily used to produce simple chemicals that could be used as components for more complex compounds.

Turn on the Bright Lights

Bioethanol makes for a much cleaner alternative to fossil-based fuels like petrol since it is derived from plants instead of non-renewable energy sources.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the United States is currently responsible for producing the majority of bioethanol used today, but this means that around 45% of total US corn crops are divested and utilized to make bioethanol.1 This means many valuable arable land resources are being funneled away from other crucial agricultural needs like food production, as previously mentioned.

Yet, by shining the light on artificial leaves and solar technology, the Cambridge team has managed to turn on the bright lights and come up with a working proof-of-concept.

Shining sunlight on the artificial leaves and getting liquid fuel from carbon dioxide and water is an amazing bit of chemistry.

Dr. Motiar Rahaman, Lead Author

For the system to work, the team created a copper and palladium-based catalyst, which has been optimized to enable the artificial leaves to create more complex chemicals rather than simple compounds such as syngas.

These complex multicarbon chemicals, including the aforementioned ethanol and n-propanol, are high-energy density fuels that can be transported and stored with relative ease.

From the Lab to the Real World

Previous studies have shown that producing bioethanol and n-propanol is possible using other unconventional approaches, but nearly all of these methods require an electrical power source. Thus, this research marks the first time complex liquid fuels have been produced using solar power and artificial leaves in a single phase.

Normally, when you try to convert CO2 into another chemical product using an artificial leaf device, you almost always get carbon monoxide or syngas, but here, we’ve been able to produce a practical liquid fuel just using the power of the Sun. It’s an exciting advance that opens up whole new avenues in our work.

Dr. Motiar Rahaman, Lead Author

While the team found that current efficiencies require more work to take the proof-of-concept to a larger scale, the next steps are to optimize the CO2/H2O conversion process and enable efficient production of complex liquid fuels using just the sun’s energy.

Even though there’s still work to be done, we’ve shown what these artificial leaves are capable of doing… It’s important to show that we can go beyond the simplest molecules and make things that are directly useful as we transition away from fossil fuels.

Professor Erwin Reisner, Cambridge University

In a climate-conscious society, the transition to greener energy sources is a top priority, and part of this is very much focused on changing our approaches to fueling and powering the world we live in.

Therefore, there is a good incentive to take pioneering work as laid out by the Cambridge team and move it from the lab to the real world to help shine the light on new practices of green energy production.

References and Further Reading

  1. Driving on sunshine: clean, usable liquid fuels made from solar power (2023) University of Cambridge. Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2023).
  2. Rahaman, M. et al. (2023) ‘Solar-driven liquid multi-carbon fuel production using a standalone perovskite–Bivo4 Artificial Leaf’, Nature Energy. Available at:

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David J. Cross

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David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.


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  1. Al Fletch Al Fletch United States says:

    No land is lost with corn ethanol, ethanol is value-added from already existing feed production and preserves the feed.  100% of the protein and other things are still fed to livestock in a healthier, more digestible/efficient, and more concentrated form called distillers grains.  

    Since we only value-add 45% of corn, this means that at most we can just over double current production from this source.  Beyond that, corn ethanol is uneconomical because corn ethanol is limited to the protein requirements of the cattle herd on feed.  Corn ethanol needs the feed factor.

    With enough ethanol, we could have hyper efficient hyper clean ethanol optimized engines with mileage greater than even diesel engines.  Efficiency level near fuel cells (which also can use ethanol).

    They are looking to spend billions to pipeline the CO2 from fermentation across the country to bury it in ND.  This solar technology would be better to utilize and have something to show for it rather than treating it as garbage.

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