Email Print Share

"Catching Rays" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
Audio Play Audio
The Discovery Files podcast is available through iTunes or you can add the RSS feed to your podcast receiver. You can also access the series via AudioNow® by calling 641-552-8180 on any telephone.

Using a common metal most famously found in self-cleaning ovens, Sossina Haile of CalTech University hopes to change our energy future. The metal is cerium oxide -- or ceria -- and it is the centerpiece of a promising new technology developed by Haile and her colleagues that concentrates solar energy and uses it to efficiently convert carbon dioxide and water into fuels.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Capturing Sunbeams in a Jar?

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Solar energy, plentiful and free, but we need to find a practical way to bottle and store it. Scientists at Caltech have taken a unique approach to the challenge. A team has developed a solar reactor technology that uses the sun in a different way.

Their prototype reactor is two feet tall with a quartz window. The quartz acts as a magnifying glass to focus the sun's rays and a chamber that contains a material called ceria, a metal oxide. It has the ability to "inhale" oxygen into its crystalline structure.

When carbon dioxide or water is pumped into the reactor, the ceria strips the oxygen from it leaving behind carbon monoxide and/or hydrogen gas. The hydrogen gas could be used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells or, combined with the carbon monoxide and converted into liquid hydrocarbon fuels and once the ceria has inhaled all the oxygen it can, heating it up using sunlight makes it "exhale" the oxygen it took in starting the process anew.

We could someday have large-scale solar reactors that could actually take the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants and use sunlight to convert them to transportation fuels.

Nothing like, "catching some rays."

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

General Restrictions:
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation. Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.

MP3 icon
NSF podcasts are in mp3 format for easy download to desktop and laptops, as well as mobile devices capable of playing them.