Soon, the large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted from power plants every year won’t have to end up in the atmosphere. Researchers are optimistic that within the next decade, we can affordably capture CO2 waste and convert it into useful molecules for feedstock, renewable fuels, biofuels or pharmaceuticals. A team of Canadian and US scientists have published their study in the journal Joule about their vision on what we should do with CO2 and how we can do it.
“Similar to how a plant takes carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to make sugars for itself, we are interested in using technology to take energy from the sun or other renewable sources to convert CO2 into small building block molecules which can then be upgraded using traditional means of chemistry for commercial use,” said Phil De Luna, a PhD candidate in materials science. “We’re taking inspiration from nature and doing it faster and more efficiently.”
De Luna, the first author on the paper, along with post doctoral fellow Oleksandr Bushuyev are both members of the Edward Sargent Lab at the University of Toronto. Sargent, the senior author, is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The researchers’ analysis found that a series of possible small molecules could be made by converting captured CO2. For example, hydrogen, methane, and ethane could be used in biofuels. Ethylene and ethanol could also serve as the building blocks for various consumer goods. Formic acid derived from CO2 could be also used by the pharmaceutical industry or as a fuel in fuel cells.
Although current technologies that can capture CO2 waste are still in their early stages, there are new start-ups that are currently developing strategies for commercial use. The researchers envision that the coming decades will bring about major improvement to make CO2 capture and conversion a reality.
“This is still technology for the future,” says Bushuyev, “but it’s theoretically possible and feasible, and we’re excited about its scale up and implementation. If we continue to work at this, it’s a matter of time before we have power plants where CO2 is emitted, captured, and converted.”