Researchers develop one-step way to turn CO2 and water into fuel

23 Feb 2016

A team of researchers from University of Texas, Arlington (UTA) has made a rather significant step towards being able to convert CO2 and water into fuel using the power of the sun.

With billions of metric tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere on an annual basis, many scientists have been racking their brains to think of whether it’s possible to not only reverse some of the damage we have done, but actually re-use Co2, at least when it comes to human-produced emissions.

With this in mind, the UTA team has published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that details its latest discovery, which shows how a simple and inexpensive method of producing liquid hydrocarbon fuels can be achieved using concentrated light, CO2 and water.

With the help of a photo-thermochemical flow reactor operating at 180ºC to 200ºC and pressures equivalent to up to six atmospheres, the concentrated light drives a petrochemical reaction that subsequently leads to the formation of thermochemical carbon chains in a single-step process.

This would be the first time that researchers have used both light and heat to synthesise liquid hydrocarbons in a single-stage reactor from CO2 and water.

Re-use CO2 from the atmosphere

Essentially, it’s envisioned that this relatively straightforward method could have applications for carbon capture in our atmosphere and be re-used to create fuel to be used in the same way we use it in vehicles and energy today.

“Our process also has an important advantage over battery or gaseous hydrogen-powered vehicle technologies as many of the hydrocarbon products from our reaction are exactly what we use in cars, trucks and planes, so there would be no need to change the current fuel distribution system,” said Frederick MacDonnell, co-principal investigator of the project.

“Our next step is to develop a photocatalyst better matched to the solar spectrum. Then we could more effectively use the entire spectrum of incident light to work towards the overall goal of a sustainable solar liquid fuel.”

How the wider environmental community will take to the idea of creating carbon fuels from carbon inserted into our atmosphere remains to be seen, but the development of energy from sunlight and water is considered a highly sought-after scientific concept.

Last week on, a team from the Tyndall Institute in Cork outlined its method of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and using the former to create a new range of clean fuels.

Sunlight hitting water image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic