Solar panels floating on the ocean.

Enlarge / Artist’s rendering of solar methanol islands. (credit: Novaton)

Imagine an open ocean, Sun beating down overhead, with 70 islands of solar panels, each 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter, bobbing silently out toward the horizon.

The cluster of islands is churning out electricity and sending it to a hard-hulled ship that acts as an oceanic factory. This factory uses desalinization and electrolysis equipment to extract hydrogen gas (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the surrounding ocean water. It then uses these products to create methanol, a liquid fuel that can be added into, or substituted for, transportation fuels. Every so often, a ship comes to offload the methanol and take it to a supply center on land.

This plan was outlined in a PNAS paper published this week, which suggests it’s an option for addressing the global economy’s over-reliance on liquid fossil fuels. Removing excess carbon dioxide from our environment is crucial to mitigating the effects of climate change. But electrifying trucks and planes has proved intractable in the near-term, so finding a “greener” option for liquid fuel is seen as a helpful half-step.

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