NU professor and students research a solar-powered car

    Imagine being able to power your car with a carbon-neutral car fuel – and not just any carbon-neutral fuel, but a solar-powered, liquid fuel which would be created from the sun’s energy, some water and existing carbon dioxide.

    It may seem crazy, but chemistry Professor Dick Co is involved with research that could turn this idea into reality. Co founded Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI), where several Northwestern students from several master's programs like McCormick's analytics program, Kellogg, and NUVentions, an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship class, have done research on creating marketing plans, databases and other digital tools which have helpaced explore available data in the field.

    Even President Obama highlighted the work being done by SOFI when he gave an economic policy speech on campus last October. “Here at Northwestern, your researchers are working to convert sunlight into liquid fuel, which sounds impossible or at least really hard,” Obama said during the speech.

    “We didn’t know he was going to say anything about us, but we were thrilled,” said Elizabeth Lukehart, the digital communications manager for SOFI. “To get that recognition and that vote of confidence was really exciting.”

    Co said the project has particular importance right now because of increasing concerns about climate change driven by greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide.

    “We have this free lunch from the sun,” Co said. “It puts so much energy out, and if we can capture it, store it and ultimately recycle to carbon dioxide, that could be carbon neutral,” he said.

    The quest to create a solar fuel isn’t the first innovation aimed at changing the way Americans drive gas-guzzling vehicles. Electric cars, such as the vehicles from Tesla Motors and the Nissan Leaf, have also broken into the market in recent years, and have faced skepticism from American consumers.

    “The reason electric cars are tricky is that people talk about, ‘How much range can I get? Can I drive from New York to San Francisco?’” Co said. “Every new technology that comes out, people ask, ‘Is that really for me?'’’

    The price tag on a luxury model Tesla can run as high as $100,000, and at the moment, buying a solar fuel generator would be more than double that amount, at $250,000.

    That’s only if you want to buy the only solar fuel generator in the world, said Co, which is handmade in Switzerland. He said that once the market and technologies exist to mass-produce these generators, the prices should drop, similar to the way better market incentives and better technologies have brought the price of solar panels down.

    “And there’s a return on that investment,” Lukehart said. “You’re not going to the gas station to pay for fuel.”

    If oil prices continue to drop, however, it may be harder to convince the average American consumer that the investment is a wise one. Still, the SOFI team at Northwestern remains optimistic. Co believes the project can change the way people think about energy and electricity.

    “When people talk about energy, they think it’s out of their control,” he said. “I have no control over what comes out of this outlet, I go to the gas station but I have no control over where this gasoline comes from. We want to use our technology to give people a vote.”

    Lukehart agrees, saying that the future of energy will likely be “distributed energy.”

    “Rather than the current model where you’ve got massive power plants that supply energy to huge portions of the world, it’s more like the idea of having solar panels and devices on your own property,” she said. “Distributing energy is almost this democratic form of taking power literally into your own hands." 

    SOFI plans to launch a Kickstarter in the near future to raise funds for building a prototype, which should be ready by the end of this year. The crowd-funding is also a means of getting the word out about the research being conducted on the solar fuel generator.

    “It’s not science fiction,” Lukehart said. “We can build it this year.”


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