The Sun set to leave Energy Competitors behindAugust 13th, 2009 by Barry Potier
When you think of the sun as a source of renewable energy, most people will automatically think of solar panels. But could the sun be more valuable than we first thought? The Guardian on Tuesday gave us a clue as too just how valuable an asset the sun may prove to be in our bid to harness a sustainable energy supply.
Part of a project called the “artificial leaf“, involves working out exactly how leaves use sunlight to make useful molecules. The team then plans to build artificial systems that can do the same to generate clean fuels such as hydrogen and methanol. These would then be used in fuel cells to make electricity or directly to power super-clean vehicles.
The untapped potential for using the sun’s rays is huge. All human activity for a whole year could be powered by the energy contained in the sunlight hitting the Earth in just one hour. Harnessing even a small amount of this to make electricity or useful fuels could satisfy the world’s increasing need for energy, predicted to double by 2050, without further endangering the climate.
According to James Barber, a biologist at Imperial College London and leader of the artificial leaf project, if artificial photosynthesis systems could use around 10% of the sunlight falling on them, they would only need to cover 0.16% of the Earth’s surface to satisfy a global energy consumption rate of 20 terawatts, the amount it is predicted that the world will need in 2030. And unlike a biological leaf, the artificial equivalent could be placed in the arid desert areas of the world, where it would not compete for agricultural land space.
Similar projects are gathering pace around the world: the US is poised to approve a federal research budget of around $35m a year for ideas that could create fuels from sunlight and the Dutch government has allocated €40m for similar research.
John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, described the artificial leaf idea as very promising because “we know that plants have already evolved to do it and we know that, fundamentally, it’s a workable process on a large scale.”
He added: “Ultimately, the only sustainable form of energy we’ve got is the sun. From a strategic viewpoint, you have to think this looks really interesting because we know we’re starting from a base of feasibility.”
What are your thoughts on this innovative idea? Do you think ‘leaf power’ could eventually take the number one spot in the world’s power producing league?