A new device could turn greenhouse gases into clean fuel using sunlight

18 Jan 2022

Image: Photonics21

The project, which could offset 2.7bn tonnes of CO2 every year if successful, has received €5.6m in EU funding.

Scientists in Europe are developing a new process to turn greenhouse gases such as CO2 into clean energy products using sunlight, potentially converting billions of tonnes of CO2 into clean fuel each year if successful.

A consortium called Spotlight is creating a device that makes use of photonics, the science and technology of light. With this device, the team is looking to process up to one megaton of CO2 per year, complementing existing large-scale carbon capture and utilisation processes.

The device concentrates and projects natural sunlight onto a reactor, using LED lighting for continuous operation, and makes use of plasmonic catalysts that can absorb the entire solar spectrum.

Combined with a new chemical process, the device could convert carbon dioxide and green hydrogen into methane and carbon monoxide, as a starting material for creating methanol liquid fuel.

“Climate change, one of the biggest societal challenges of our day, can be tackled with light technologies by taking greenhouse gases that trap heat close to the Earth and turning them into something useful,” project coordinator Nicole Meulendijks said.

The process being developed by the Sunlight team could be scaled up to offset the CO2 emitted by small to medium ‘point sources’, or places that emit carbon dioxide with emissions of less than one megaton per year. Combined, Meulendijks said these point sources emit 2.7bn tonnes of CO2 a year globally.

“So, potentially, the process we envision at Spotlight could convert 2.7bn tonnes of CO2 per year into useful chemical fuels,” she said.

Meulendijks added that methane and methanol are compatible with our current infrastructure and are suited for applications such as car fuel, energy storage and the starting material to produce valuable chemicals.

The Spotlight project involves 12 organisations from the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. It has received €5.6m in EU Horizon 2020 funding and is expected to be finished at the end of 2023.

Photonics is an area of research with plenty of developments. Photonics21, the European technology platform for photonics that represents more than 3,000 members, estimates the European photonics industry to be worth €70bn.

Last year, PhotonicLeap, a European project coordinated by the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, was awarded more than €5m through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to develop new photonics technology.

The European Commission also granted a high-resolution microscope project more than €5.6m via the Photonics Public Private Partnership.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic