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How do you converse solar energy into fuel and other chemical compounds on an industrial scale? In a quantitative analysis of the most promising strategies, UvA biologists identified microbes as the key to efficient CO2-to-product conversion. The results of their study were published in RSC Energy and Environmental Sciences.

solar fuel

The researchers, including Klaas Hellingwerf, Filipe Branco dos Santos, Merijn Schuurmans and former Master's student David Lips, compared the most promising strategies for the sustainable synthesis of liquid energy carriers (biofuel), commodity chemicals for plastics, and renewable materials directly from CO2 using the energy of sunlight. The different approaches were studied with respect to their efficiency and productivity of the CO2-to-product conversion.

The researchers from the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences and the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics showed that the usage of living cells is the common denominator in the most successful methods. In their publication, the authors also discuss the possible pitfalls and limitations of each method during the scale-up to industrial level. Their analysis is a useful guide to direct efforts in accelerating the development of alternatives to the exploitation of fossilised deposits.

Fruitful student-researcher interaction

The study is a continuation of a gold-medal winning idea in the iGEM 2015 competition, an international student competition in the area of genetic engineering. Former Master's student David Lips was part of the team that won the medal for their proposal of a 'synthetic consortium' in which CO2 is converted directly into products using the energy of sunlight. Filipe Branco dos Santos was one of the instructors of the team. The current publication therefore nicely illustrates a fruitful interaction between student and researcher.

Publication details

Lips, D., Schuurmans, J.M.M., Branco dos Santos, F. and Hellingwerf, K.J. (2017) Many ways towards ‘solar fuel’: Quantitative analysis of the most promising strategies and the main challenges during scale-up. Energy Environ. Sci., 2017, Accepted