Last week I was so excited to find a copy of Schoolhouse Rock: Science Rock when cleaning out a room in Lind Hall. I learned so much from Rocky and his pals when I was in elementary and middle school. Watching that old VHS tape, I was reminded of some really neat research being conducted at the Solar Energy Laboratory on campus.
At the Solar Energy Lab, researchers are using seven-mirrored, 6,500 watt lamps which have the irradiance of 3,000 suns to generate temperatures of more than 3,600 degrees F to split carbon dioxide and water to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
Carbon monoxide and hydrogen are the two main components of "syngas," a synthetic gas created from carbon dioxide using solar power. Syngas can be converted to "synfuels," which can take the form of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, methane (natural gas), or other products.
The best thing about this process: it requires no input of fossil fuels. U of M researchers are working on a way to take carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, and turn it back into fuel. An analysis indicates that the sunlight-to-synfuel process can run with nine percent efficiency.
Jane Davidson, mechanical engineering professor in the College of Science and Engineering said about the project, "With 9 percent efficiency--which would be many times more efficient than using biofuels--we could replace all the petroleum in the United States with solar collectors covering 15 million acres.That's the size of West Virginia, and half of what we use for highways."
Already, Davidson and her colleagues have produced syngas in their lab and are beginning to work on prototype reactors. As they develop reactors, another team of researchers is studying materials which could make the process easier and even more efficient.
I'll leave you with a lesson I learned from Schoolhouse Rock, "If everyone tries a bit harder, our fuel will go farther and farther."