The next best thing to oil



A renewable carbon economy? Surely that’s a pipe dream? Perhaps not, now that solar power facilities are cropping up in deserts across California, Spain and North Africa. The idea is to use the sun to power chemical plants able to split carbon dioxide. Combine the resulting carbon monoxide with hydrogen and you have the beginnings of a solar fuel that could one day replace oil.

Since 2008, a European consortium led by Athanasios Konstandopoulos at the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas, Thessaloníki, Greece, has been operating a 100-kilowatt pilot plant that generates hydrogen from a combination of sunlight and steam. The plant is sited at a concentrating solar power tower – the Plataforma Solar de Almería, in Almería, Spain – which houses a series of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto solar panels beneath.

The same technology can also be used to split CO2 – the resulting CO can be combined with the hydrogen to form hydrocarbon fuel, they say.

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