Their method could help us suck excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it to good use.
Water and carbon dioxide. That’s all that plants need to create fuel for themselves by converting them, with the aid of sunlight, into glucose, which they then use to sustain themselves. What if we used these chemicals through an artificial form of photosynthesis to create not glucose but propane and other natural fuels?
Two scientists at the University of Illinois in the United States have done that by developing a process that relies on the same green light portion of the visible light spectrum that plants use to convert CO2 and water into liquified fuels.
As a result, they say, we could have another method for sucking excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and putting it to good use. We could fall back on such fuel when solar power is limited for lack of adequate sunshine or else when power demands peak. Converting CO2 into liquid fuel could also be a boon to green energy technology.
“The goal here is to produce complex, liquefiable hydrocarbons from excess CO2 and other sustainable resources such as sunlight,” says Prashant Jain, a professor of chemistry who was a co-author of a study the two researchers have published in the journal Nature Communications. “Liquid fuels are ideal because they are easier, safer and more economical to transport than gas and, because they are made from long-chain molecules, contain more bonds, meaning they pack energy more densely,” Jain adds.
By help of catalysts covered in gold nanoparticles, which can absorb sunlight well and do not easily degrade, green light from the sun is absorbed in order for electrons and protons to aid in the chemical reactions between CO2 and water. Essentially, they function as the pigment chlorophyll during natural photosynthesis.
Energy stored in the bonds of hydrocarbon fuel thus gained can then be freed in several ways. Simply burning the liquid fuel to free up the energy in it, however, would end up producing more CO2. That would be “counterproductive to the notion of harvesting and storing solar energy in the first place,” Jain says.
“There are other, more unconventional potential uses from the hydrocarbons created from this process,” he explains. “They could be used to power fuel cells for producing electrical current and voltage. There are labs across the world trying to figure out how the hydrocarbon-to-electricity conversion can be conducted efficiently.”
Their work is not done yet, however. “We need to learn how to tune the catalyst to increase the efficiency of the chemical reactions,” Jain notes. “Then we can start the hard work of determining how to go about scaling up the process. And [as with] any unconventional energy technology, there will be many economic feasibility questions to be answered as well.”