Rust from ovens could be the key to making unlimited amounts of cheap fuel that could power anything, scientists have discovered.
A team used ceria, which forms when ovens are heated, to strip oxygen from water and carbon dioxide and leave them with the basics of a liquid fuel.
They said that potentially this fuel could be turned into cells which could power machines or converted into a natural gas for a generator.
The discovery raises the prospect of a very cheap power source being created from just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, some of the most plentiful elements on Earth.
Vital resource? Rust from ovens could be the key to making unlimited amounts of cheap fuel that could power anything, scientists claim
The process had been realised before but the new discovery is the first time that it could be affordable enough to have a mass application.
The researchers from California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said the most exciting part of the discovery was its versatility.
‘We are not dictating to the user what the energy infrastructure should be,’ said Sossina Haile, a professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering.
‘We are making solar energy easy to use by putting it into a form that our industry is used to seeing and making it available on demand.’
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The researchers used ceria, which is the oxidised form of cerium and forms in self-cleaning ovens, to make their discovery.
The first phase involved heating the ceria to 3,000F (1,650C) using concentrated sunlight so that it naturally released oxygen from its surface.
When the temperature was lowered the researchers observed that it sucked oxygen in - as if it were ‘inhaling or exhaling’ depending on the temperature.
When the researchers added water and carbon dioxide and lowered the temperature, the ceria stripped the oxygen away, leaving hydrogen in place of the water and carbon monoxide in place of the carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen, or H2, and carbon monoxide, CO, together can be used to make fuels.
Professor Haile, said: ‘You could use the H2 and CO to make methane (natural gas) for a gas-fired electricity generator.
‘Or, because the fuels we produce are so pure, they could be easily used to run fuel cells, which generate power very efficiently.’
She explained that because cerium is 100,000 more plentiful than platinum, which had been used in previous similar experiments, it made the process much more affordable.
She added that more tests need to be done to make it more efficient.
‘As a second step, it will be important to develop materials with even better characteristics than ceria,’ she told Physorg.com.
‘Ideally, one wants a material with a smaller temperature swing required as this will also increase efficiency.
‘In addition, if both the high and low temperatures can be lowered, the overall system lifetime will be improved. Better materials could result in a better process.’