Look to the sun

So much energy, gotta wear shades.

So much energy, gotta wear shades.

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Durn if the new year isn’t ringing in with a note of optimism on the climate crisis front: “A simple reactor that mimics plants by turning sunlight into fuel has been demonstrated in the laboratory, boosting hopes for a large-scale renewable source of liquid fuel,” reported the U.K. Guardian last month.

Originally published in Science, the research done by Dr. Sossina Haile at the California Institute of Technology uses the metal cerium, which is “chemically similar to what we call the rare earth metals, but it turns out not actually to be rare,” said Haile to NPR—its abundance is about equal to that of copper.

A professor of materials science and chemical engineering, Haile envisions a rooftop reactor that could produce 3 gallons of fuel a day. The device uses a parabolic mirror to focus the sun’s rays into a reaction chamber, where the cerium-oxide catalyst breaks down water and carbon dioxide. It’s technical—never one for a lab coat, Auntie Ruth doesn’t fully get it—but never mind: The process supposedly results in the production of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can be converted to a liquid fuel. And because the cerium doesn’t get used up in the reaction, it can be used over and over again, reported NPR.

How valuable is 3 gallons of fuel a day? If Auntie Ruth understands this correctly, the value is in 1) having numerous such rooftop reactors, all of them in essence imitating the way plants create energy from sunlight; 2) using this renewable liquid fuel to replace fossil fuels, thereby reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; and 3) using these renewable fuels as a method to store energy from the sun so that it is available at times of peak demand and overnight.

Haile, now a mother of two, fled Ethiopia with her parents during the coup in the mid-’70s, after soldiers arrested and nearly killed her historian father. They then settled in rural Minnesota before Haile went to MIT and UC Berkeley.

“Remarkably, more energy from sunlight strikes the earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on the planet in one year,” Haile noted in a synopsis of a lecture at Indiana University last year. “Thus, the challenge modern society faces is not one of identifying a sustainable energy source, but rather one of capitalizing on the vast, yet intermittent, solar resource base.”

You go, girl.