Converting CO2 to store renewable energy: is it possible?

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Hyunjoon Song and his colleagues at South Korea’s Institute for Basic Science managed to find a promising way to produce fuel from a greenhouse gas like CO2, by using sunlight and common metals to convert carbon dioxide into methane.

This exciting discovery could lead towards industrial processes where CO2 can be converted into chemicals and fuels.

In turn, this could help reduce CO2 emission in the atmosphere and reduce the greenhouse effect.

How does the CO2 conversion work?

This innovative process mixes small particles of zinc and copper oxides into carbonated water.

When exposed to sunlight, these metal particles oxidise becoming a catalyst for a chemical reaction that breaks up the carbon dioxide present in the water and, consequently, binds the carbon to the molecules of hydrogen, with the effect of creating almost pure methane – the main component of natural gas.

The gas creatine can then be stored and burned to produce energy.

Song and his colleagues published their research last year in the journal Nature Communications.

This work wants to help the research toward an innovative way to stock energy from renewable sources, like wind and solar power, and improve the widespread use of this energy sources plus, of course, do something to offset the negative effects that carbon-based energy industry has imposed on our planet.

“The catalytic process satisfies both significant themes — solar energy storage and CO2 reduction” explains Song and other scientists, working on similar research projects, think that we could get to a point where we will be in a position to recycle C02 as we nowadays recycle a newspaper or a tin can.

One of this scientists is Birdja, Ph.D. student at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry, searched who search for a long time ways to convert CO2 to other compounds, a conversion that in nature takes much time.

Birdja utilised molecular catalysts which are comparable with a component of the protein hemoglobin in red blood cells.

“The catalyst consists of a metal atom center and a surrounding ring of primarily carbon and hydrogen atoms. It is already known that the catalyst can be fine-tuned quite precisely by placing chemical compounds on the carbon ring. But in my research, I have fine-tuned the catalyst by varying the metal center. This gains new insights about the formation of specific products such as formic acid, carbon monoxide, and methanol and about its efficiency.” he explained.

The objective of Birdja research is to produce formic acid as this liquid fuel easier to use than others, like hydrogen for instance, and also use this chemical for the storage of sustainable energy.

The current production of formic acid is in fact not sustainable, as it depends on fossil fuels.

This research could potentially lead to green energy being stored in sustainably generated formic acid, starting from the common CO2.

CO2 as a natural resource

Although current technologies for CO2 conversion are still in their infancy, it’s realistic to foresee some significant breakthroughs in the next decade or so.

Company around the world are trying to invert the paradigm and starting to look at CO2 as a resource and not just a harmful greenhouse gas, and now it’s not difficult to picture a future with large factories harvesting CO2 from the atmosphere to be used in their production processes.

Some scientists believe that in fifty years or so, CO2 might be even converted using molecular machines or nanotechnology.

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