They discover how to make clean and sustainable fuels ‘from nothing’

Shown: Carbon dioxide can be taken from industrial processes, or even directly from the air, and converted into clean, sustainable fuels using only solar energy.. This has been proven by researchers at the University of Cambridge who have developed a solar-powered reactor that converts captured CO2 and plastic waste into sustainable fuels and valuable chemicals.

CO2 in tests synthesis gasA key component for sustainable liquid fuels and plastic bottles glycolic acidIt is a widely used product in the cosmetic industry.

The difference (capital) with previous experiments is this: British team sourced CO2 from ‘real world’ sourcessuch as industrial waste or the air itself; i.e. ‘suddenly’. They were able to capture and concentrate CO2 and convert it into sustainable fuel.

It is true that improvements are still needed before this technology can be used on an industrial scale, but the results published in the journal ‘Joule’ show that: An important step towards clean fuel production “Stimulating the economy without the need for environmentally damaging oil and gas extraction,” say the authors of the experiment.

The research group of Professor Erwin Reisner from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry has been developing for several years Sustainable net-zero carbon fuels inspired by photosynthesis (the process by which plants convert sunlight into food), using artificial leavesConverting CO2 and water into fuels using only solar energy.

An artificial leaf. The photoanode side (green square) is visible in the photo. Motiar Rahaman / University of Cambridge

To date, these solar-powered experiments have used pure, concentrated CO2 from a cylinder, but for the technology to be suitable for practical use it had to be able to actively capture CO2 from industrial processes or directly from the air.

Decarbonization and defossilization

The problem is that CO2 is just one of many types of molecules in air, so the technical challenge is to make this technology selective enough to convert highly diluted CO2.

“We’re not just interested in these decarbonizationbut also defossilization: To create a truly circular economy, we need to phase out fossil fuels altogether“says Reisner.

“In the medium term, this technology could help reduce carbon emissions by taking them away from industry and turning them into something useful, but ultimately, We need to remove fossil fuels from the equation completely and capture CO2 from the air” he states.

Researchers inspired Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is where CO2 is captured, pumped and stored underground.

“CCS is a popular technology among the fossil fuel industry.Reduce carbon emissions as oil and gas exploration continues” says Reisner.

“But instead of capturing and storing carbon, capture and use “If we can harness carbon, we can make something useful out of it, rather than burying CO2 underground and eliminating the use of fossil fuels, with unknown long-term consequences,” he adds.

A photoreactor with artificial leaves operating under solar radiation. Ariffin Mohamad Annuar / University of Cambridge

The researchers adapted their technology to work with combustion gases or directly from air, converting CO2 and plastic into fuel and chemicals using only solar energy.

“By passing air bubbles through the system containing an alkaline solution, CO2 is selectively retained and other gases in the air, such as nitrogen and oxygen, are harmlessly separated.. This process allows researchers to concentrate CO2 from the air, making their job easier,” explains the University of Cambridge.

Towards a carbon-free future

The integrated system includes a photocathode and a photoanode and has two chambers: on one side, the CO2 solution is captured and converted into syngas, a simple fuel. On the other hand, plastics are converted into useful chemicals using only sunlight.

“The plastic component is an important ‘trick’ for this system,” says study co-author Motiar Rahaman. “Capturing and using CO2 from the air makes the chemistry even more difficult, but if we add plastic waste system, these ‘donate’ electrons to CO2. “Plastic is broken down into glycolic acid, which is widely used in cosmetics, and CO2 is converted into syngas, a simple fuel,” said study co-author Motiar Rahaman.

This solar power system takes two harmful waste products, plastic and carbon emissions, and turns them into something truly useful“, Sayan Kar, also the co-author of the experiment.

Plastic bottles for recycling. Pixabay

“Instead of storing CO2 underground as in CCS, we can capture it from the air and produce clean fuel,” says Rahaman. “This way, We can eliminate the fossil fuel industry from the fuel production process, which could help us avoid climate destruction“, says.

“The fact that we can effectively take CO2 from the air and produce something useful from it is something special. It’s gratifying to see that we can do this using just sunlight,” adds Kar.

The scientists are currently “working on a benchtop demonstration device with improved efficiency and practicality to highlight the benefits of combining direct air capture with CO2 utilization.” The path to a carbon-free future“, details the University of Cambridge.

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