Scientist made a first crucial step towards the development of technologies that may convert the greenhouse gas CO2 into fuel, thus offsetting the negative effects of the CO2 build up in the atmosphere.
Although the idea of learning from the Mother Nature in the quest for sustainable alternative energy and fuels is not new, the solution that may result in a brighter future for our planet and us definitely is.
Plants turn sunlight, water and CO2 into organic chemicals like sugars and into multicarbon molecules that fuel cells. This means that carbon dioxide is not only the precursor of the fossil fuels, but also a by-product of burning the fuels. Thus, what we really need is to copy the natural process of generating synthetic liquid fuels from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
About a hundred years ago an attempt was made to replicate such process, and what came out of it is known as the Fischer-Tropsch method. It helped to convert hydrogen gas and CO to liquid fuels. However, the process occurs only under about 100-3000C and under extremely high pressure – from 1 to 100 times atmospheric pressure. As you see, far from the natural conditions under which plant make their magic, i.e. photosynthesis.
There is another method, but since it is poorly understood it cannot be highly reliable. It involves an electrochemical reaction, using copper electrocatalysts to convert CO and CO2 into multicarbon products.
Now the scientists at the California Institute for Technology created a model potentially showing initial steps of a process for the conversion of CO to hydrocarbons, which are the chief components of petroleum and natural gas.
Although we have methods to turn C02 into CO, it is much more challenging to make carbon couple with carbon, developing so-called C-C bonds. The chemists managed to weaken the bonds between C and O in the CO molecules, to the point that they we broken entirely. There more detailed description is available on Science Daily, but overall this method converts the two CO units to an ethynol derivative and requires regular room temperatures.
While the ethynol derivative can’t be used as a fuel, it embodies a step toward synthetic multicarbon fuels from carbon dioxide. The researchers are now applying the knowledge gained in this initial study to improve the process.