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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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New Solar Breakthrough Turns Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

Plants and their ingenious way of turning light and air into fuel have been an inspiration for many scientists. Now, photosynthesis has made the basis for a possible solution to our carbon dioxide problem. Researchers from the Swedish Linköping University have found a way to use solar power to convert carbon dioxide into other chemicals for use as a fuel. They did this by devising what they called a photoelectrode covered in a layer of graphene—the much-hyped material that is basically a single layer of carbon atoms—which captures solar energy and creates charge carriers. Next, they convert carbon dioxide and water into methane, carbon monoxide, and formic acid.

This is the latest sign that a drive is underway to find ways to utilize the carbon dioxide that is the target of so many environmental initiatives and even the Paris Agreement itself. And this drive is gathering pace, with breakthroughs likely to keep coming.

Earlier this year, for example, the National Renewable Energy Lab and the University of Southern California announced they had made a new sort of catalyst that could make hydrogenation—a process than can turn carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons—cheaper.

Their catalyst utilized nanotechnology to add nanoparticles of molybdenum carbide—a compound featuring a metal and carbon that has an extensive range of applications, among them the conversion of carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide to be used in chemicals production, and into hydrocarbons. 

Cost is an essential consideration in all projects seeking to make use of the carbon dioxide that we release in the atmosphere instead of just leaving it there and worrying about it. Carbon capture technology is notoriously expensive, for example, and many believe it would never become affordable enough to make sense as a large-scale solution to the world's emissions problem. But some technologies are that expensive, it seems.

Related: Bulls Beware: A Dark Cloud Is Forming Over Oil Markets

MIT last year released a paper detailing a device that could literally suck out the carbon dioxide from the air and store it for later use. The device's principle is ingeniously simple: as the battery charges, it sucks in carbon dioxide. During discharge, the CO2 is released into the ground. The battery itself is made up of arrays of electrodes with gaps between the arrays so the gas can enter the device. The electrodes have a natural affinity for CO2, which means they attract the gas molecules when they enter the device. Then they are released into storage space.

Then there is flaring capture. Flared gas is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions and a priority problem for the energy industry. There are already companies focusing exclusively on this. One such company, UK-based Capterio, says eliminating emissions by capturing the gas before it is flared reduces the carbon footprint of the emitter, saves them costs, and increases revenues because the gas can be used for other things instead of wasting it through flaring.

So, there is carbon capture and storage, there is reuse of the gas that emits the carbon dioxide before it emits it, and there is recycling the carbon dioxide into other chemicals that could be used for a range of applications, from plastics production to hydrogen fuel cells. With so many potential benefits—and with growing pressure from regulators—chances are there will be more breakthroughs in CO2 utilization before long.

There is a financial incentive, as well. If something is usable, then it has value. All those tons of CO2 that are released into the earth's atmosphere are no exception. Flared gas alone costs about $27 billion in lost revenues every year. While it's true that most CO2 emissions cannot be monetized in the same way that flared gas can be monetized, part of them can still be captured and used productively. The technology is in the works.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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