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Liquid Sunlight and the Quest for a Sustainable Energy Source

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity, so researchers are looking for renewable energy sources that are reliable, efficient, and cost-effective. Liquid sunlight, or thermal energy converted to liquid form, is one of them. And why not? Solar energy is abundant, and the sun will continue to shine for the next five billion years. As solar energy converted to liquid fuel offers so much potential, it’s high time that we start making some smart energy choices.

used liquid sunlight, dan nocera qouted
The new leaf that will do the Earth good.

Turning Solar Energy to Liquid Fuel

The sun is always out there, and the solar energy available is so abundant. In fact, per year, the sun provides 23,000 terawatt-years (TWy) of energy. In 2015, the planet’s total energy consumption was 18.5 TWy. How come we are not tapping an abundant, renewable, and infinite energy source?

There are three reasons – reliability, efficiency, and cost. During night time and in places where there is not enough sunlight, solar energy is not a reliable energy source. This makes the storage of solar energy crucial. The innovations around solar energy storage are far and few, and the technology has not been fully developed. Moreover, the materials scientists need to gather energy from the sun can be costly. Photovoltaics and solar panels use platinum, copper, and cadmium. And these are expensive materials. With the high cost of installation of solar panels, adoption of the technology has been quite slow. Thankfully, a solution in the form of liquid sunlight is on the horizon.

Turning solar energy to liquid fuel is achieved by harnessing one of nature’s basic processes – photosynthesis. Just like a leaf, liquid sunlight is produced by using the sunlight to split the components of water. By mimicking the mechanism in plants, water – two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen –is processed through an intermediary system. Once split, gases such as hydrogen and carbon convert into liquid form, stored and used on-demand.

Catching Liquid Sunlight: Studies on Solar Fuel Energy

used liquid sunlight in a flask held by a scientist
Used liquid sunlight is the next renewable energy to watch out for.

By using nature as inspiration, potentials, and innovations abound along the way. Photosynthesis is the foundation where the technology of turning solar energy into liquid fuel is built upon. Several research facilities are leading the movement towards finding sustainable energy sources through liquid sunlight.

  • Dan Nocera from Harvard University is the proponent of Bionic Leaf. Through the mechanism of an artificial leaf, a built-in catalyst takes sunlight and water and produces liquid fuel that can be used immediately. The most recent prototype has an efficient and biologically-compatible catalyst. The project is showing so much promise, and they are refining iterations for commercial applications.
  • ETH Zurich is working hand in hand with the European Union for the project Horizon 2020. The project aims to develop a technology that can convert sun to liquid fuel. The project kicked-off in 2016. The aim of developing a solar thermochemical technology is to convert solar energy to liquid fuel. The technology has three subsystems – sun tracking and energy gathering, production of synthetic gas, and conversion of synthetic gas to liquid form.
  • UC Berkeley chemistry professor, Peidong Yang, is working on creating semiconductor materials that can capture sunlight efficiently. The gathered energy from sunlight will then be used to produce chemical reactions to extract fuel from the carbon in the atmosphere. Professor Yang, with support from UC Berkeley, is looking forward to developing a fuel source that is sustainable and environmentally-friendly.
  • The Chalmers University of Technology has been developing technology that can capture the sun’s energy in a liquid form. Led by scientist, Kasper Moth-Poulsen, the study uses a liquid composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. When exposed to the sun, this mixture locks in the sun’s energy within the chemical bonds. When it’s time to use the liquid sunlight, a catalyst can trigger the compound to rearrange its molecular structure. The conversion releases heat energy. Various applications such as water heating systems, dryers, and more may benefit from it.
used liquid sunlight, kasper Moth-Poulsen quoted
There is an endless exploration of how molecules work.

There’s No Better Option than Sustainable Energy Source

The use of energy – and how and where we source it – is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially true for fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels for energy contributes to about two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Extraction, transport, and processing of the fuel products have an environmental impact, too.

With the race to mitigate the impact of climate change, world leaders drafted the Paris Agreement in 2015. The goal is to “keep a global temperature rise this century well below two degrees Celsius and limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” By all standards, these are daunting goals. Petroleum, coal, and gas still stand as the world’s leading source of energy. There is a need to implement drastic measures to lower down our dependence on finite energy sources. Thus, the use of renewable power sources such as hydro, geothermal, and solar as the primary energy sources is of significant importance.

Genetically Modified Kids and the Unintended Outcomes of Genetic Engineering

Scientist and biophysicist He Jiankui has caused quite a stir in the scientific community. In 2018, the researcher from Shenzhen, China, declared that he successfully modified the genetic makeup of a human embryo using CRISPR Technology. Based on this research, the first genetically modified kids Lulu and Nana, were born. According to He, the study was able to successfully block off the path where HIV passes through. He further added that he edited nothing else, and that the twins are healthy and thriving.

Despite these claims, scientists and researchers unanimously condemned the act as downright reckless, irresponsible, and negligent. While genetic engineering in humans is a promising endeavor, the existing technology is still in its infancy. It is unethical to expose a live human embryo to the technology without knowing the full extent of its impact.

cartoon of a couple shopping for traits for The Ideal Baby posted on a wall for genetic engineering or modifying their baby
Genetic engineering for genetically modifying kids is real, but it is indeed still in its infancy. How will this powerful technology impact future families?

Are there side effects to the process that will only be revealed as genetically modified kids grow older? Is there a chance that the procedure can make them sicker? Experts in the field have yet to find out. Until there are answers to these questions, the magic word should be “restraint”.

Looking at the Bigger Picture: The Risks of Genetically Modified Kids

While He Jiankui’s action has been considered reckless, the results of his attempt are comparable to a door that was left ajar. Lulu and Nana, as the first genetically modified kids, paved the way to a new frontier in genetic engineering. It will not be too long until someone follows and comes through the door.

In truth, the path of pursuing designer babies and genetically modified kids will attract all sorts of attention. From governments to corporations to groups pushing for ideologies. Falling into the wrong hands, risks abound in genetic engineering, and the effects are irreversible:

  • CRISPR is so powerful, and scientists should take every precaution on how they wield this power. One mistake can destroy all the efforts and years of research poured into the technology. There could be damage to the entire field, and all benefits and potential uses of the tool can go to waste.
  • Genetically modified kids are healthier, more disease-resistant, and can be designed to be more intelligent. Having an entire population that requires fewer health costs can be seductive to governments. Consequently, totalitarian governments can tap on the power of genetic engineering to push for eugenics and genetic cleansing.
  • Genetic modification permanently alters the human germline. When genetically modified kids have children of their own, their edited genetic codes will also be passed on. Mutations, alterations, and environmental factors should be considered. No one knows how these modified germlines will impact future generations. Until there is an assurance to welfare and safety, genetic modification is not worth the risk.
genetic engineering, david baltimore quoted
Understanding the possible consequences of germline editing should be a top priority.

Genetic Engineering: A Door to New Frontiers or New Risks?

In the beginning, the foreseen purpose of genetic engineering in humans was to put an end to various life-threatening diseases. By switching off the sequence that carries the genetic expressions of diseases such as cancer, sickle cell, hemophilia, and Huntington’s disease, genetically modified kids can live healthier and longer lives. For couples wanting to build a healthy family, genetically modified kids don’t sound bad.

However, once adaption of the technology spreads, genetic engineering will not be limited to health and medical purposes. Imagine a would-be parent inside a genetics clinic saying, “Yes, turn off the cancer gene. While you’re at it, can you throw in blue eyes, athletic build, and intelligence, please?” In a not-so-distant future and as wider acceptance ensues, vanity may take over, and designer babies will be the new norm.

We can all agree that humans could use a bit of betterment. Some of us may wish to be taller, have a different face, or be more intelligent. If we cannot do it for ourselves, maybe we can achieve it for our offspring. As a species, genetic engineering is an adaptation method –to survive, our progeny must be the fittest and the healthiest.

With the power that genetic engineering wields, societies must take extra precautions. Without caution, the risk that the technology will be used with unethical and questionable intentions is higher. The technology and means to modify the human blueprint have arrived, and banning or suppressing this technology will not help. Instead, academic and scientific communities, governments, and businesses must work together for check and balance.

Used Liquid Sunlight

used liquid sunlight in a flask held by a scientist
Used liquid sunlight is the next renewable energy to watch out for.