With gas prices soaring past the $4 mark around the nation and dependence on foreign oil continually growing, a team of University researchers may have found a way to alleviate these problems by utilizing sunlight and water to produce hydrocarbons that can be used as fuel.

Suljo Linic, an associate professor of chemical engineering, and a team of doctoral students recently concluded research that found effective and more sustainable methods of producing fuels like gasoline.

Linic said the goal of the research was to create materials capable of transforming sunlight into a reliable source of chemical energy. The experiment was conducted by reducing the amount of thermal energy used by shining artificial light on water that “mimics the sun”, causing the water to spilt into hydrogen and oxygen bonds, Linic said.

“If you convert the energy provided by sun into some sort of chemical energy, then you can store this chemical energy — molecules with high energy content — and use it whenever you want,” Linic said

He added that the success of the water splitting experiments will help facilitate the use of sunlight to create hydrocarbons — particles used to fuel automobiles.

“If we can split water efficiently, using sunlight to form hydrogen, then we can react it with carbon dioxide to form hydrocarbons, this is what you use in your car, to drive your car, gasoline,” Linic said.

As gas prices rise around the nation, he said their findings are “opening avenues to make hydrocarbons cheaply”, and may allow for the production of cheaper fuels.

Linic added that the increase in demand of sustainable energy sources has been amplified because of recent concerns over global warming and the imminent depletion of natural resources.

“This has been a problem that has attracted attention since the end of the 1970s,” he said. “There has been a renewed interest in this problem, because of the global warming issues, and energy efficiency in general.”

Linic said he hopes his research will allow for the production of products that will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign resources, and that the team is working on translating their research into something “commercially viable”.

“We’re completely reliant on fossil fuels to run our entire chemical industry, so we would love to create processes that are not only environmentally friendly, but also to reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuel sources,” he said.

Phillip Christopher, a Ph.D candidate in chemical engineering who participated in the research, said the study is important in discovering alternative ways to produce chemicals and fuel humans use daily.

“A big part of this research attempts to utilize sunlight, and develop materials that can utilize sunlight, to come up with a sustainable and environmentally friendly way of producing both fuel as well as the chemicals that we need in everyday life,” Christopher said.

“As a world, we’re pretty reliant on fossil fuels, for both energy resources as well for producing useful chemicals that we use every day,” he added.

Linic added that beyond his team’s initiatives, the University offers an array of prospects to aid in the sustainability effort.

“There are major advancements to be made in the field of environmentally sustainable energy production, and University of Michigan offers a great number of opportunities to get involved and to help out,” Linic said.

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