The ease at which we can burn hydrocarbons to produce energy has led to huge gains in productivity and quality of life for millions, but it also coincides directly with the extreme rise in carbon dioxide emissions that we have been observing since the industrial revolution.
This has led many in the scientific community to focus squarely on finding ways in which to convert the greenhouse gas into fuel.
The researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are helping to make this a reality, with their studies leading the way for the creation of technology that takes the exhaust gases of fossil-fuel power plants and turns it into a usable energy source.
While the process of breaking down carbon dioxide into water and fuel is nothing new, the way in which problem has been approached brought about results that were simply not cost-effective enough to evolve into viable options.
The team at UIC, whose work is featured in Nature Communications, improved on the current efficiency standard through a pair of recently discovered catalysts that allow for carbon dioxide to be turned into carbon monoxide, which then can be made into gasoline and other forms of energy.
The process works much faster than what came before it (about 10x), but it is not cheap. The primary catalyst is Silver, so the costs would likely become quite exorbitant if used on an industrial scale. Fortunately, the scientist have proven it is possible to replace silver with inexpensive carbon fibers, all while maintaining the same efficiency, making the technology a real possibility for scalable, commercial use.
The work is in the early stages of discovery, so there is a great deal of critical problems solving still to be done. The lead researcher, Amin Salehi-Khojin, mentioned that, “it will be necessary to produce larger amounts of the catalysts and find a way to incorporate them into a membrane that helps keep them stable over long periods of time—development work that will require industrial partners.
To further stoke the speculative flame of what is possible with this revolutionary tech, Salehi-Khojin says we may eventually be able to incorporate the catalysts into an “artificial leaf.” As of this writing, if the process were to run on sunlight, it would require at least two pieces of equipment: a solar panel to generate electricity, and then a reactor to form the carbon monoxide. A leaf-inspired system, on the other hand, would absorb energy from the sun and use it to drive the chemical reactions directly, rather than making electricity first.
This approach would make the process much more economical.