We’re pretty excited about this new carbon dioxide conversion process from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, first of all because we love seeing our tax dollars at work and second of all because it involves a room-temperature process that results in carbon monoxide. Now, that might not seem like such a big deal, but once you have carbon monoxide in hand you can make methanol and liquid hydrocarbons to replace petroleum fuels.
Recycling some greenhouse gas is another plus, so come to think of it we like the idea of putting excess carbon dioxide to good use rather than sequestering it somewhere for someone else to deal with sometime in the future. But, that’s just us. If you have some thoughts about engineered carbon sequestration give us a holler in the comment thread.
The Brookhaven Carbon Dioxide Conversion Process
The Brookhaven carbon dioxide conversion process is significant because it solves a couple of obstacles to using electricity to power the operation. Potentially, you could use wind or solar-generated electricity but that only makes sense if your conversion process is efficient enough.
For an electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion process to make sense commercially, the secret sauce would be a catalyst that can facilitate a high rate of activity while cutting the energy input needed down to the bone.
There are already some options at hand, but according to Brookhaven the catalysts that are most efficient are too much of a good thing in terms of commercial development because they result in too many different products.
On the other hand, the carbon dioxide conversion catalysts with good specificity are too slow, or require too much energy.
The Brookhaven solution is an ionic liquid, which is a salt kind of like table salt but it has a liquid form at room temperature. In electrochemical terms, ionic liquids are composed of positive and negative charges, which makes them useful as electrolytes (electrolyte is fancyspeak for electricity conductor).
Ionic liquids caught Brookhaven’s eye because there are already indications that they can improve the energy efficiency of electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion.
The use of a homogeneous catalyst (meaning that the reactants and catalyst are both dissolved in a liquid) was also attractive because such catalysts are known to result in a narrower range of products.
Here’s how the team attributes its success:
The reason for the improvement, the scientists suspect, is a special interaction between one of the ionic liquid’s ions and an intermediate form of the catalyst that results in a lowering of the activation energy required for the reaction.
By the way if you think you’ve been hearing more about ionic liquids lately, you’re not hearing things. The unique properties of ionic liquids have been leading to many new applications in clean energy tech, including EV batteries and biofuels.
Another Route To Carbon Dioxide Conversion
The Brookhaven breakthrough is in its early stages, so don’t hold your breath for commercialization. The team is looking into further study of the ionic liquid-enhanced process using other ionic liquids and homogeneous catalysts, which could eventually lead to the production of other other useful products aside from carbon monoxide.
We started following the company back in 2010 when it was based in New Zealand. It recently moved to Illinois on the heels of a zillion-dollar US Energy Department grant (okay, so more like $4 million) through the agency’s ARPA-E cutting edge funding arm.
LanzaTech has been following the microbial fermentation route, applying its technology to carbon-rich waste gases from steel mills and other industrial operations.
Us taxpayers aren’t the only new friends LanzaTech has been making. Earlier this spring, the venture capital unit of Siemens just plunked down an investment in LanzaTech, which it’s billing as “a US-based technology leader in the biological generation of fuels and basic chemicals from industrial waste gases.”
The Siemens investment is part of a $60 million round of funding aimed at helping LanzaTech to fine tune its process for the commercial market.
The company is also looking to expand its product line, which right now includes fuel as well as butadiene and propylene, which are precursors to nylon and plastics manufacturing.
As for commercialization, with a little assist from Siemens the expectation is that LanzaTech’s first commercial plants will be up and running in 2015.
We’ve also been following another US company called Newlight Technologies. Newlight is also on the verge of commercializing its microbe-based conversion process with a focus on the plastics market, billing its product as “carbon negative plastic.”
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