This year the University of Trento’s 5 per mille campaign, presented this morning in the Rectorate Offices in Trento, asks taxpayers’ help in financing “Simply sun”, the Physics Department’s Green Project that confronts the many economic, social and environmental problems that affect our planet head on.
This campaign suggests resolving these problems with the help of a massive and unique engine of change: energy.
Not energy produced from traditional fuels, but energy from the sun which we could use one day to fuel all human activity, with the help of a great deal of science and technology, plus copying nature just a little,
Energy for everyone, always on tap.
What would happen if we were able to produce any commodity using only solar energy? And if there were enough energy to quell all worries about lighting our towns, running our factories, guaranteeing transport and access to food and water to the global population? An unlimited supply of energy in every part of the planet could perhaps bring an end to geopolitical tensions and conflicts and contribute to resolving the great global problems: hunger, economic inequality, pollution, sustainability.
The Sun produces 10 thousand times the energy that we need on the Earth every day to live, produce and consume, get about, heat ourselves, communicate. As a source of energy it is highly democratic: it is available to all without any need to be distributed. However, it is sporadic therefore its use is limited. In fact we know how to capture this energy, but it is difficult to store to be able to guarantee continuity at night and when the energy demand grows. Transforming the energy produced by the Sun into hydrogen using water electrolysis is a prospect that we have been working on for quite some time.However problems abound : hydrogen is energy-hungry, it is complex to store and process and it is produced and used locally because it is problematic to distribute it on the grid.
Imitating nature: lightning to convert the Sun’s energy
Innovative solutions can be inspired by observing nature. During a storm, lightning crosses the atmosphere and with the force of its electric discharge it separates oxygen and transforms it into ozone. At the same time, renewable electric energy can be used to produce a discharge of carbon dioxide (CO2) mixed with other gases. This discharge separates the CO2 and produces chemical and fuel composites: the same generated by fossil sources. In contrast to this, however, those produced by recycling CO2 permit closure of the carbon cycle bringing new emissions down to zero. In addition they are ready to be stored and distributed efficiently and in great quantities. This idea, imitating nature itself, makes it possible to bypass the production of hydrogen and directly convert the energy from the Sun (or from other renewable sources such as wind or water) into hydrocarbon. Subsequently it is converted into energy for our homes and factories and into many commodities. This electrification of the economy would change the face of our planet.
The scientific community is looking with interest at this new green revolution because of the advantages that it would bring. No more energy storage problems; continuous recycling of CO2 with a reduction in pollution; compatible development and growth, respect for the environmental and socio-economic balance of the planet.
The high cost and inertia involved in the conversion process, combined with the long established habit of using the same energy supply grids as well as a balancing act between politics and economics, have made a global change in mentality unappealing for the moment. However technological advancement could invert this trend, showing how the advantages, also on an economic level, outweigh further investment in fossil fuels.
The first step towards making this approach more economically feasible involves working on the process of separating CO2 to make it yet more efficient. “Observing the separation phenomenon during the laboratory experiment has been like looking in a black box up till now. Impossible to measure how much CO2 has been separated in the discharge” explains Paolo Tosi, head of the Atomic and Molecular Physics laboratory at the University of Trento. “but thanks to an innovative laser spectroscopy technique that we invented, things have changed. This diagnostic technique is based on the use of a quantistic state as a sensor. Just like an “under-cover agent”, the “sensor” molecule is sensitive to the surrounding environment, it captures all the useful information. Observing this molecule, we obtain indirect information on the phenomenon of separation that is occuring inside. We can measure it.
It is as if we were filming a super close-range still shot video of the event, with an extremely high resolution.”
But that is not all. The research project carried out by Paolo Tosi’s group has achieved another significant result.”We have managed to work on the duration of the electrical discharges, reaching very brief impulses, about 10 billionth of a second. They are brief discharges, much more effective because they are powerful. This demonstrates that technology works. It is now possible and could soon be very practical to transform energy from the sun into hydrocarbons through the separation of CO2. Now we have to work on engineering this process to make it feasible outside the laboratories too. Where it is needed, where the Sun shines”.
The gamble is then to take this technology outside the laboratories to be at the service of the economic and productive system. But there’s still a long way to go and a lot to be done in order to test these technologies and make them available on the market. Resources are necessary to purchase equipment and invest in the careers of young researchers. For this reason the University of Trento has decided to allocate the revenue from the 2019 “5 per mille” to the Atomic and Molecular Physics Laboratory’s project.