Trump or no Trump, the US Department of Energy has been forging ahead with a full slate of renewable energy research programs, and one of them could spell big trouble for fossil gasoline. The agency’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has paired up with the University of Toronto to develop a method for converting carbon dioxide and water into a basic building block for high value chemicals and fuels, including synthetic gasoline.
Gasoline From Water: Wait — What?!?
The idea of converting water into gasoline may smell fishy, but if you recall your middle school science class, water has a hydrogen molecule in there along with some oxygen. All you need is to do is boot out the oxygen and add some carbon, and there you have instant hydrocarbons. A few more tweaks and you can create synthetic gasoline among many other hydrocarbon products.
Syngas is already a ubiquitous industrial product. The challenge is to improve the process and reduce its carbon footprint. Berkeley Lab explains:
…syngas can be converted downstream into small molecules, like ethanol, or larger hydrocarbons, such as those in gasoline, by fermentation or thermochemistry. Designing a material and a process that can easily control the composition of syngas would be an important improvement in reducing the environmental impacts of those industrial processes.
As for the material — aka the catalyst — the conventional catalyst is gold, but then you end up with an overabundance of carbon monoxide in your syngas. The team found that a dusting of copper on gold produced syngas with more hydrogen.
With your syngas in hand, the next steps along the process involve fermentation or thermochemistry to produce gasoline and other hydrocarbon products.
So, the more precisely tuned your syngas is, the quicker and easier it is to arrive at the desired product — and with a lower carbon footprint, too.
The researchers were able to “tune” the gold surface by tweaking the number of copper atoms, resulting in pinpoint control over the amount of carbon monoxide and hydrogen needed to arrive at a variety of different syngas mixtures.
Yes, Renewable Gasoline From Water
You could try to DIY this at home if you have a sheet of gold and some copper atoms, but if you’d rather just read along you can get all the details from the Journal of the American Chemical Society under the title, “Tunable Cu Enrichment Enables Designer Syngas Electrosynthesis from CO2.”
For those of you on the go, the abstract sums it up nicely:
…We utilize in situ surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy and first-principles density functional theory calculations to develop a systematic picture of CO* binding on Cu-enriched Au surface model systems. Insights from these model systems are then translated to nanostructured electrocatalysts, whereby controlled Cu enrichment enables tunable syngas production while maintaining current densities greater than 20 mA/cm2.
Did you get all that? Basically, the research team modeled the desired reaction first, and used that information to fine-tune their catalyst [that’s where the Cu (copper) and Au (gold) come in].
One general environmental improvement of syngas over fossil fuels is the carbon recycling angle, but that’s actually not the main difference between the new process and conventional syngas production. This is:
Using renewable energy to recycle CO2 provides an opportunity to both reduce net CO2 emissions and synthesize fuels and chemical feedstocks.
If you caught that thing about renewable energy, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The process uses an electrical current, which could be powered by wind, solar or other renewables. Here’s the lowdown from Berkeley Lab:
Scientists have developed a new recipe for creating synthesis gas mixtures, or syngas, that involves adding a pinch of copper atoms sprinkled atop a gold surface. The new material supports a room-temperature electrochemical reaction that can convert carbon dioxide and water into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and an important precursor in the production of chemicals and synthetic fuels.
If this sounds like something that will take a while to get up off the lab table and into your gas tank, guess again. A couple of years ago Ford and Audi began tinkering around with synthetic gasoline (and diesel) using an electricity-powered process with water and carbon dioxide. Back in 2012, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago also began tackling synthetic gasoline from another angle, by working on a low-impact way to reduce carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.
What’s So Great About Synthetic Gasoline?
This whole thing about synthetic gasoline doesn’t stack up well against electric vehicles, but the reality is that gasmobiles will not be wiped off the face of the planet any time soon.
As the mobility landscape transitions to electric drive, providing a carbon-recycling fuel alternative for the millions of remaining gasmobiles is an improvement over the current practice of digging up fresh carbon from underground.
Carbon recycling is also the principle that supports biofuel as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
There’s also a strong national defense and homeland security argument in favor of synthetic fuels. Hurricane Harvey brought home the vulnerability of US fossil fuel sector, a significant portion of which is concentrated in refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
An additional vulnerability is the long supply line between Texas and points east, which is primarily concentrated in “America’s OPEC” — the Colonial pipeline, which is partly owned by the Koch brothers, btw.
In contrast, syngas production facilities could diffused more evenly around the country and located closer to local markets, taking into account regional variations in water supply, CO2 recycling opportunities and the availability of wind, solar and other renewables.
The Berkeley-Toronto research team also foresees replacing diesel and petrochemicals with syngas produced with renewable energy, so stay tuned for that.
Image: via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
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