Turn­ing car­bon diox­ide into fuel

Re­searchers have cre­ated an ar­ti­fi­cial leaf that turns car­bon dixoide into syn­thetic gas which can be con­verted into fuel.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TECHNOLOGY - By Ally MArotti

UNIVER­SITY of Illinois at Chicago re­searchers have de­vel­oped a way to mimic plants’ abil­ity to con­vert car­bon diox­ide into fuel, de­crease the amounts of harm­ful gas in the at­mo­sphere and pro­duce clean en­ergy.

The ar­ti­fi­cial leaf es­sen­tially re­cy­cles car­bon diox­ide, said Amin Salehi- Kho­jin, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal and in­dus­trial en­gi­neer­ing at UIC and lead re­searcher on the pro­ject.

And it’s pow­ered en­tirely by the sun, mim­ick­ing the real pho­to­syn­the­sis process.

“Real leaves use the en­ergy from the sun and con­vert car­bon diox­ide to sugar,” Sale­hiKho­jin said. “In the ar­ti­fi­cial leaf that we built, we use the sun and we con­vert car­bon diox­ide to syn­thetic gas ( syn­gas), which can be con­verted to any hy­dro­car­bon, like gaso­line.”

Here’s how it works: The en­ergy of the sun re­ar­ranges the chem­i­cal bonds of the car­bon diox­ide. So the sun’s en­ergy is be­ing stored in the form of chem­i­cal bonds, which can be burned as fuel, Salehi- Kho­jin said.

The abil­ity to store the sun’s en­ergy that way could solve a prob­lem the clean tech com­mu­nity faces with bat­tery stor­age.

Tech­nol­ogy sur­round­ing wind tur­bines and so­lar pan­els has de­vel­oped enough that those forms of en­ergy har­vest­ing are be­com­ing eco­nom­i­cally vi­able, and large cor­po­ra­tions are in­creas­ingly sourc­ing power from wind and so­lar farms. But a way to store that en­ergy – so wind and so­lar power can be used on de­mand – is not as read­ily avail­able.

Mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies are devel­op­ing bat­ter­ies, and al­though some ex­perts think they’ll be cheap enough to com­pete with fos­sil fu­els by the end of the decade, they’re not there yet.

UIC’s de­vel­op­ment could push re­new­able en­ergy tech­nol­ogy for­ward, said Pro­fes­sor Michael R. Wasielewski, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­abil­ity and En­ergy at North­west­ern Univer­sity.

“Whether you use so­lar or whether you use wind as a source of elec­tric­ity, you have a source that’s in­ter­mit­tent and not storable, so what you need to do is find a stor­age method,” he said. This ar­ti­fi­cial leaf closes “the car­bon cy­cle so you don’t have any ex­cess CO2, so it’s an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly way of stor­ing this re­new­able en­ergy”.

A study pre­sent­ing their re­search was pub­lished in the jour­nal Science. A patent is pend­ing on the tech­nol­ogy. Salehi- Kho­jin re­ceived a Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion grant for about US$ 330,000 ( RM1.35mil) last sum­mer to help with the re­search.

Sci­en­tists around the world have been study­ing car­bon re­duc­tion, as this type of re­ac­tion is called, for years, Salehi- Kho­jin said. The team at UIC found a cat­a­lyst that was able to break down the chem­i­cal bonds of car­bon diox­ide bet­ter than the sil­ver and gold tra­di­tion­ally used in the process.

Salehi- Kho­jin said he thinks a pro­to­type could be ready in about five years, given the help of an in­dus­try part­ner. He en­vi­sions putting it in so­lar farms next to power plants so it could re­cy­cle car­bon diox­ide from the plant, then the plant could use the power it gen­er­ates.

Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Pro­fes­sor Nathan Lewis, who has been study­ing so­lar fu­els and ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis for more than 40 years, said UIC’s de­vel­op­ment is only a small piece of an even­tual so­lar fuel prod­uct that can be widely im­ple­mented.

“There’s a lot of steps that need to oc­cur to en­vi­sion how these things would trans­late into a sys­tem that can be com­mer­cialised, but it’s a step for build­ing a piece of a full sys­tem that may be use­ful,” he said. “It’s go­ing to take a lot of ef­fort from a lot of peo­ple to re­ally push this over the goal line.” –

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