From Water to Fuel

In the distant future, solar powered cars may be coming onto the market.

The scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology have been working on developing an efficient and simple way of powering cars using light energy from the sun. In order for this to happen, a specific catalyst called a photoanode would be required. A photoanode is something that can absorb the energy from the sun and then use this energy to speed up the breaking up of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Then, the hydrogen can be turned into hydrogen gas or hydrocarbon fuel.

But the reason why we do not have any solar powered cars on the market yet is because materials that can absorb the right amount of energy and act as the ideal catalyst are extremely rare. Within the last 40 years, only 16 photoanodes have been discovered but John Gregoire, the head investigator at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, and his team have made a breakthrough in relation to searching for these special catalysts having found 12 of them in the span of 2 years.

First, they identify which material out of 60,000 others in a database may be potential photoanodes by inspecting the predicted properties using quantum mechanics (this means that they are looking at the subatomic level). Then they selected which of the materials have the most potential to be a catalyst and tested them to confirm whether or not they were correct. Apparently, this is similar to what happens in the pharmaceutical industry when they do tests to see which drug is going to work.

Scientists performing tests to determine potential photoanodes

The search for the catalyst to create solar fuel would result in a solar panel that consists of a photoanode, a photocathode (the part that makes the fuel) and the membrane which would separate them. Then this fuel would be able to fill the tank in your car and bring you places.

What do I think?

This is the second time that I have read an article about using water to help the environment! Besides that, this article sparks something when we’re talking about global warming. I know that a lot of people in the developed world depend on their cars, including myself. Cars offer a great deal of convenience; we can travel long distances in the heat, the cold and in rain. We can transport many things and overall, time is what is valuable to people and transport by cars save us plenty of time. The downside to this is that the high volume of cars contributes to the greenhouse effect and air pollution. Obviously, it is going to be more difficult to eradicate cars so I think solar powered cars would present a great solution. We would be able to take away a lot of air pollution. One of the problems with this solution is that everybody already has perfectly good cars that run on gas and cars last a while. Nobody is going to replace something just to save the environment and there are still some people who think global warming and climate change is a hoax.

Also, I have heard talk about self-driving and the less trustworthy flying car hitting the market. Even though they have not even found the right catalyst for this yet, how would they be able to make it safe enough that people will want to buy it? Hydrogen gas is flammable and it would definitely be worse since hydrocarbon combustion is going to happen in the same system. Also, even though the system will not be perfect and some of the products will be lost, if I am not mistaken, hydrocarbon combustion or the burning of hydrocarbons will produce carbon dioxide, water and energy. The good thing about these products is that more water can be created, so can this water be reused in the system to continue to power the car? The down side about these products is that there is carbon dioxide, which I think is one of the main gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Will this really be as environmentally friendly as it seems? But maybe they are using a different method. And does this also mean that the car will not be as hot if it is left in the parking lot because the light energy is being directed elsewhere? On another note, I would love to read more about the projects and discoveries of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis since plants that use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and glucose from water and carbon dioxide are doing us a favour. I feel as if we should be reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and I think that we are demanding too much of plants as of now to clean our air. If they have found something that could suck the CO2 out of the air for more oxygen, that seems pretty cool. Then again, my knowledge is limited so that might not be the main problem.

In the near future, hopefully soon, I will also be in the market for a car and I would definitely be interested in a car that is eco-friendly as long as it is affordable and does not have extra hassle (for example, you have to charge it in your garage). Somewhat unrelated, I do not hate the idea of connecting an exercise bike to power your television. It seems like a quaint idea to be able to power your television, be entertained while exercising and help the environment at the same time.

Additionally, water is renewable unlike the fossil fuels that we are using now. Yes, to replace fossil fuels with water would probably be an issue for those countries that depend on fossil fuels to make money but eventually, they will run out anyway. In the bigger picture, saving the Earth is more important than a countries economy. Also, I think it would be much cheaper to fill our cars with water rather than gas and we might not have to worry about the gas prices change every day. Imagine just filling your tank with your garden hose at home! That probably would not happen though. At the same time, what is going to happen to the water supply in some areas if we have to diverge it and use it to power another technology that we depend on so heavily? Is this going to require only pure water and will the amount of fuel created power us as much as gas does? Does this mean that our fuel tanks are going to be so much heavier and are we going to need a backup supply of some other power (similar to hybrid cars)?

On the brighter side, this solar and hydro-powered technology might not just be for cars but could power homes. I used to have a solar powered water heater which gave us free heated water on especially sunny days. Even as a child, this made me feel less guilty about wasting hot water and this would be good for those who want to have heated water to fill their pools.

Another interesting thing that this article has made me think about is how there are still things being discovered. In this day and age, it seems as if all the important discoveries have been made but like it says in the phrase on my about page, there are still oceans and lands that hold so many secrets and that is just the Earth. It is not as if these secrets are for us to uncover, but I think the mystery of what is still out there is interesting. Also, I am glad this article gives me a little bit of insight as to how drug research companies or the material science industry discovers and conducts research in case I do want to enter the research field for my future career. They use supercomputers to be extra efficient, which is strange because I think that my computer is pretty quick now, I cannot imagine how much quicker a supercomputer or quantum computer would be nor can I imagine my superiors would trust me with using this technology since I feel like I have a technology curse. Nothing in my household ever works as advertised.

Reference list:

Balaraman, K. Scientists May Be a Step Closer to Creating Solar-Fueled Vehicles. Scientific American [Internet]. 2017 [cited 13 Mar 2017]. Available from:


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