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Published on October 7th, 2011 | by Andrew


Capturing CO2 to Make Fuel: Illinois Research Team Makes Breakthrough in Artificial Photosynthesis

October 7th, 2011 by  

Image Courtesy of Dioxide Materials

We’ve been reporting on the efforts and strides being made by energy researchers around the country to reduce CO2 emissions and produce clean energy by mimicking photosynthesis. Well, a research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently overcame a major obstacle in efforts to use CO2 emissions to produce liquid fuel.

University of Illinois professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Paul Kenis and his research team succeeded in lowering the potential energy needed to convert CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO), a big step forward in creating energy-efficient ‘artificial photosynthesis’.

In artificial photosynthesis, electricity produced from clean renewable sources, such as solar PV cells or wind turbines, is fed to an electrochemical cell — sounds like something akin to a fuel cell — to convert CO2 “to simple carbon fuels such as formic acid or methanol,” which are then refined further to make ethanol and other fuels, a EurekaAlert report explains.

If the artificial photosynthesis process can be scaled up and improved further, it would eliminate having to go through the process of collecting biomass and converting the sugars they contain into biofuels. That would be a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way of both removing CO2 from the atmosphere and producing fuel. It would also address the issue and criticism of using farmland to produce energy crops, which puts upward pressure on food prices.

“The key advantage is that there is no competition with the food supply,” Richard Masel, the founder of the research team and CEO of Dioxide Materials, told EurekaAlert. “And it is a lot cheaper to transmit electricity than it is to ship biomass to a refinery.”

The team’s key breakthrough came as a result of using an ionic liquid catalyst to speed up and significantly lower the energy required to convert CO2 into CO, a hurdle that has made the cost of artificial photosynthesis prohibitive.

“It lowers the overpotential for CO2 reduction tremendously,” Prof. Kenis explained. “Therefore, a much lower potential has to be applied. Applying a much lower potential corresponds to consuming less energy to drive the process.

“More work is needed, but this research brings us a significant step closer to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis was quoted as saying.

A similar process is actually being put to the test by FuelCell Energy as it moves forward with a DOE-supported project to capture and eliminate 90% of CO2 emissions at a coal-fired power plant and use them to produce clean electricity.

See these related posts:

Yes, For Real We Now Have a Genuine Artificial Leaf
New “Solar Leaf” Mimics Nature to Produce Low Cost Energy



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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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