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For years the human race has been kidding itself that it can warehouse toxic energy byproducts. Even storing them underground in remote U.S. deserts has shown to be less than effective.
Similarly, some scientists have suggested storing excess carbon dioxide in aquifers or shale bedrock. That just might work, but it wouldn’t be nearly as useful as exploring two other ways to deal with these byproducts: capturing them and turning them into something useful and non-toxic.
Andrew Bocarsly, a professor of chemistry at Princeton University, has done just that with carbon dioxide. He has co-founded a new energy company called Liquid Light Inc. of Monmouth Junction, NJ, to efficiently harness sunlight to convert CO2 into formic acid, which could be an alternative fuel.
Bucarsly’s research, published June 13 in the Journal of CO2 Utilization, says he and Liquid Light employees used a commercial electrochemical solar panel like ones that can be found on electricity poles throughout New Jersey.
The panels, provided by the energy company PSG&E, are made of metal plates the size of a child’s lunch box, hold carbon dioxide and channels of water and, using solar energy, turn them into formic acid. Think of it as synthetic photosynthesis.
Bocarsly explains that to achieve maximum efficiency, the solar panel must generate at least as much power as the cell can contain, a process known as impedance matching. So Bocarsly’s team stacked up three electrochemical cells and achieved energy efficiency of nearly 2 percent.
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This is twice the efficiency of natural photosynthesis in plants and sets a record for energy efficiency in a manufactured device. Given this efficiency, plus the availability of parts and a generous worldwide supply of carbon dioxide, Bocarsly says, his process is a promising method for making a renewable fuel. Already, energy companies are exploring ways to store solar energy in batteries as formic acid.
This isn’t the first time researchers have looked at ways to turn carbon dioxide into something other than poison. In 2012 researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles used formic acid to turn carbon dioxide into isobutanol, an alternative fuel based on alcohol.
The U.S. energy industry is under pressure by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The UCLA and Princeton research could go a long way to meeting that goal, according to Knovel.com, a website of engineering news.
Because the Princeton and UCLA techniques require no extra ingredients to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, Knovel.com explains, these processes can be carried out at a single location. One logical site, it says, would be power plants that burn fossil fuels and are equipped with mechanisms that capture their greenhouse gas emissions, then convert those emissions into fuel.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com