Scientists from leading European research institutions in the field of solar-to-fuel energy conversion call for unified action and substantial support for novel clean fuel technologies as well as a paradigm change in Europe’s current energy policy. This is crucial if Europe is to maintain its environmental stability and economic development.
Direct conversion of solar energy into fuel represents one of the very few major options that humankind has to provide socially, economically and environmentally robust and resilient renewable fuel with energy security that is guaranteed in a humanitarian instead of confrontational manner, according to the Science Policy Briefing “Harnessing Solar Energy for the Production of Clean Fuel” issued by European Science Foundation (ESF).
It is now becoming widely recognised that the public R&D budgets allocated to the renewable energy technologies need immediate and substantial increase. Contrary to the massive public investments to traditional energy sources and energy infrastructure, the share of clean energy in R&D budgets remains as low as at 7-8 percent.
This ESF Science Policy Briefing is the outcome of a discussion among groups of leading European scientists in the field of solar energy and proposes particular steps towards workable research programmes and implementation strategies for better understanding the challenges of clean fuel research and related socio-economic issues. Its main goal is to open a broad debate between the relevant public and private bodies at both national and European level on how to shape Europe’s leadership in this domain.
The scientists involved explain that there are no fundamental engineering concerns that would limit a full-scale commercial use of solar-to-fuel energy conversion in the future. In the paper they identify and project two of the most promising technologies where - given effective support - major scientific breakthroughs are expected:
- Solar-to-fuel conversion in microorganisms. This technology utilizes modified photosynthetic microorganism s to produce hydrogen and carbon-based fuels from sunlight. Although there are already some research achievements in this field, the Policy Briefing emphasizes that for secure and sustainable solar-to-fuel technology a substantial improvement of efficiency needs to be realised in the next few years. The scientists also call for rapid development of prototype outdoor photobioreactors through partnerships with private sector which would promote further engineering and scientific improvements.
- Photocatalysis - a development of chemical/physical solar-to-fuel cells (the artificial leaf), mimicks the biological processes that plants successfully use to harness solar energy. The detailed information on how green plants are able to exploit solar energy can be used to design novel technologies capable of using solar energy to produce hydrogen or secondary fuels.
Both technologies have the potential to provide CO2 neutral fuels with a higher efficiency than those based on field crops. And both are independent of the use of arable land mass. Both solutions require long term planning and development. They need additional support to blend the underlying basic science into cross-cutting technological applications. According to these experts this provides a “genuine chance for ‘emerging ideas’” and will give rise to high impact’ science and multidisciplinary cooperation.
In addition to these two fields for joint-action, the policy briefing also addresses social, economic and political factors that are closely related to a new ‘clean fuel’ energy infrastructure.
Social sciences must addressed a whole array of issues and concerns stretching from overcoming opposition to innovation from the current energy industry incumbents to the role of public understanding and engagement in shaping a future energy policy. The overall goal of the social research in this regard will be to forecast the alternative paths in a future solar energy socio-technical system. This would allow for more adaptive and interactive planning instruments.
Finally, the science policy brief addresses the implementation of the outlined research by specific science policies at the European and national levels. As the direct conversion of solar energy to fuel is not yet widely commercialised and profound scientific progress needs to be done, the R&D programmes of national governments and of the European Union has a vital role to play in leading the development of new clean fuel technologies.
The necessary increase in effort includes better research coordination at the European level. This is seen as another crucial condition for a soft transition to a new clean energy infrastructure.
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