Turning CO2 into fuel

From the University of Illinois – Ionic liquid catalyst helps turn emissions into fuel

University of Illinois chemical and biological engineering professor Paul Kenis and his research group joined forces with researchers at Dioxide Materials, a startup company, to produce a catalyst that improves artificial photosynthesis. The company, in the university Research Park, was founded by retired chemical engineering professor Richard Masel. The team reported their results in the journal Science.


Artificial photosynthesis is the process of converting carbon dioxide gas into useful carbon-based chemicals, most notably fuel or other compounds usually derived from petroleum, as an alternative to extracting them from biomass.

In plants, photosynthesis uses solar energy to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water to sugars and other hydrocarbons. Biofuels are refined from sugars extracted from crops such as corn. However, in artificial photosynthesis, an electrochemical cell uses energy from a solar collector or a wind turbine to convert CO2 to simple carbon fuels such as formic acid or methanol, which are further refined to make ethanol and other fuels.

“The key advantage is that there is no competition with the food supply,” said Masel, a co-principal investigator of the paper and CEO of Dioxide Materials, “and it is a lot cheaper to transmit electricity than it is to ship biomass to a refinery.”

However, one big hurdle has kept artificial photosynthesis from vaulting into the mainstream: The first step to making fuel, turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, is too energy intensive. It requires so much electricity to drive this first reaction that more energy is used to produce the fuel than can be stored in the fuel.

The Illinois group used a novel approach involving an ionic liquid to catalyze the reaction, greatly reducing the energy required to drive the process. The ionic liquids stabilize the intermediates in the reaction so that less electricity is needed to complete the conversion.

The researchers used an electrochemical cell as a flow reactor, separating the gaseous CO2 input and oxygen output from the liquid electrolyte catalyst with gas-diffusion electrodes. The cell design allowed the researchers to fine-tune the composition of the electrolyte stream to improve reaction kinetics, including adding ionic liquids as a co-catalyst.

“It lowers the overpotential for CO2 reduction tremendously,” said Kenis, who is also a professor of mechanical science and engineering and affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “Therefore, a much lower potential has to be applied. Applying a much lower potential corresponds to consuming less energy to drive the process.”

Next, the researchers hope to tackle the problem of throughput. To make their technology useful for commercial applications, they need to speed up the reaction and maximize conversion.

“More work is needed, but this research brings us a significant step closer to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said.

Graduate students Brian Rosen, Michael Thorson, Wei Zhu and Devin Whipple and postdoctoral researcher Amin Salehi-Khojin were co-authors of the paper. The U.S. Department of Energy supported this work.

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104 thoughts on “Turning CO2 into fuel

  1. OK, they have invented a low efficency battery that in the end produces a surplus of CO2. Since there will NEVER be a break even point (Energy in vs out) because otherwize they could use the fuel to generate the electricity. The whole scheme becomes a really inneficient solar cell. If the process could be improved, it might work as a high capacity battery generating fuel while the wind is blowing and the sun shines to be burned when they aren’t at a lower efficiency rate of course.

    This sounds like a sucker fishing expedition.

  2. Uh oh. The current administration supporting anything nowadays seems to be a death knell.

  3. It might make sense if you used cheap hydro electricity, but never with wind or solar. They used to make ammonia using hydro at Trail, BC.

    Synthesis gas is usually make from coal or gas, but from wood is possible and carbon neutral.

  4. My bull detector was going off BEFORE I found out that I was paying for this via my tax dollars. Now that I know the DOE was involved all we have to do is find the connected democrat, union, or liberal education institution that is skimming. Oh, looky! The University of Illinois. What a coincidence.

  5. FundingFishingAlert. Insert [feel_good_CAGW_mitigation_scheme] here.

  6. I think natural photosynthesis is remarkable and free and effective.
    To make hydrocarbons synthetically from CO2 isn’t necessary.

  7. While they’re working on this, in the mean time, Ionic Liquids would make a good name for a rock band.

  8. “More work is needed, but this research brings us a significant step closer to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said.
    If only all the bright contributors to WUWT would (as I thought they claimed they could) convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are only in the very slightest linked to climate change, wanted or unwanted, we’d probably hear no more such remarks (nor of footprints, windmills or any of the other paraphernalia streaming from the AGW crew).

  9. “while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said
    ===========================================
    This is getting more stupid every day……

  10. Liquid or gas carbon based fuel can be used in regular cars. Charging batteries on route or even changing batteries on a longish car trip is a pain. Batteries for long haul trucks is a complete non starter. Plus we have pipline, garages, and a lot of investment in carbon.

  11. Ian Forman 11.47am said “If only all the bright contributors to WUWT would (as I thought they claimed they could) convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are only in the very slightest linked to climate change, wanted or unwanted, we’d probably hear no more such remarks (nor of footprints, windmills or any of the other paraphernalia streaming from the AGW crew)”.

    And if only Hansen, Mann et al could convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are very much linked to climate change………!!!

  12. I’d like to know the efficiency they achieve. If we could produce synthetic fuel with an efficiency of, say, 85%, we would be on par with most battery or pumped hydro storage solutions, and that would be very interesting indeed. Hydrocarbons are the best storage solution we have – high density, easy handling; much easier than H2.

    And supporting such research with tax payer money is MUCH more meaningful than doling it out Solyndra-style for mass production of technologies that we know beforehand to be inefficient.

  13. Re: Ian Forman
    ““If only all the bright contributors to WUWT would (as I thought they claimed they could) convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are only in the very slightest linked to climate change….”

    No. It is up to those who are claiming CO2 is a major driver of climate change to prove their theory. At the present moment they are unable to even demonstrate that current temperature levels are outside of the normal range of variability.

  14. How can they publish their work in the scientific literature and expect to have a viable patent protection. They make their findings public!!!

    On the technical side, ionic liquids are very interesting chemical systems but they are usually very expensive and impurities from the process at hand reduce the efficiency. In any case, it needs to be changed regularly. However, the idea to use ionic liquid to reduce the activation potential in an electrolytic cell is a very novel approach.

    On a practical side, plants at least have a certain facility to reproduce themselves and every time you end up with new “photoelectric” cells that cost next to nothing and they fix carbon extremely more efficiently. The cost and throughput of a pyrolysis system will always be much cheaper that their system.

  15. Question: Suppose this scheme really did work, and energy could be economically harnessed by removing atmospheric CO2. What would a lower limit be? i.e. Would some global consensus for CO2 levels be agreed to below which we would stop using this process to get energy? It might start getting a wee bit cold if levels dropped much below 200-250 ppm.

  16. Scott Covert: OK, they have invented a low efficency battery that in the end produces a surplus of CO2.

    They have invented another way to store the energy generated by solar and wind and hydro in places and at times when the energy is a surplus over consumption. The usefulness depends on success in upscaling the process, increasing total throughput, and reducing the price. Those have been done with other catalyst-intensive processes. Shipping fuel from sunny Nevada and California, or making fuel from wind at night, is not intrinsically less sensible than importing oil from the Middle East and Venezuela and refining it at night.

  17. Two factors need to be considered. Storage of energy requires converting one form, say thermal, into another, say hydrocarbon, so that it may be used only when and where it is needed. Try cooking a hotdog on last week’s (thermal) campfire.

    Plant matter was converted to coal and methane over millions of years with the actual energy input arguably thousands of times more than we actually get out of it. Not very efficient.

    Fortunately Andrea Rossi’s October 6 E-Cat test was a major success, and energy efficiency will never need concern us again.

    Q.E.D.

  18. Biggest barriers:

    1) The easiest fuel to synthesize is methane, which is essentially free these days due to fracking.

    2) This process will never be solar or wind powered. The equipment is expensive. Nobody is going to buy big expensive gas synthesis infrastructure and then only run it 30% of the time. It’d be great if it were nuke powered.

    3) Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are too low. Concentrating it to a point where you can put it into the reaction chamber with reasonable efficiency wastes a lot of energy. Using a coal plant waste stream gives a better CO2 concentration, but tiny amounts of SOx and NOx has a way of ruining reaction surfaces.

  19. Add this one to the list of professors and former professors who set up an outside business with ties to the university….the relationship allows them to use state or federally funded lab facilities and inexpensive grad student labor for profits their company enjoys the lion’s share of.

  20. It’s simple thermodynamics here. The energy stored will always be less than the energy invested. However, with solar input, it is not all that important that the process be very efficient as it is so abundant. Using wind power, however, it’s a pig in a poke as wind turbines are a lose-lose from start to finish, such that the energy output is a loss over the life of the turbine.

  21. seems like the various Fischer-Tropsch-based processes make more sense. Use high output C4 plants to produce biomass anywhere and everywhere. Use biomass liquefaction to turn it into various liquid fuels.

    The only justification for the UIL process is to make use of intermittent solar and wind power- build highly uneconomic windmills and solar panel installations. Use any extra electricity generated to produce fuels from captured C02 from regular power plants. It certainly can’t function competitively trying to separate 350ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere.

    The only justification for the

  22. George (Jim) Hebbard, P.E. Fortunately Andrea Rossi’s October 6 E-Cat test was a major success, and energy efficiency will never need concern us again.

    I’m doubtful. Do you have some links?

  23. Ian Forman says:
    October 7, 2011 at 11:47 am
    “More work is needed, but this research brings us a significant step closer to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said.
    If only all the bright contributors to WUWT would (as I thought they claimed they could) convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are only in the very slightest linked to climate change, wanted or unwanted, we’d probably hear no more such remarks (nor of footprints, windmills or any of the other paraphernalia streaming from the AGW crew).

    Ian:

    First, familiarize yourself with the null hypothesis. Second, if you still have questions, repeat the first step.

    In other words, where is it shown that CO2 emissions are causing climate change. Notice the emphasis on the word shown. Shown, and not just said or claimed, but actually shown, as in demonstrated.

    BTW: I did notice you said linked. That’s a pretty low hurdle. Is that deliberate?

  24. R. Gates says:
    October 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Question: Suppose this scheme really did work, and energy could be economically harnessed by removing atmospheric CO2. What would a lower limit be? i.e. Would some global consensus for CO2 levels be agreed to below which we would stop using this process to get energy? It might start getting a wee bit cold if levels dropped much below 200-250 ppm.
    ———————————————————————————————————————

    This will probably get snipped, but the stupid, it burns!!! Plants WILL DIE if CO2 levels drop that far. The plants will die, the animals that eat them will die, and we would die. COLD??? You are not talking about cold you inconceivably stupid jerk. If you waved your magic want and all the evil CO2 went away cold would not be the problem. The end of life on earth would be the problem for a short time. Then no one would care. Because they would be dead!!! It is unbelievable to me that people as willfully ignorant as the alarmists talk with authority about things… (will rant for the rest of the day…)

  25. It would be much much much cheaper to let the CO2 go free into the atmosphere and make H2 and O2 from water using carefully chosen electrodes and (possibly) subjecting it to radio transmissions (there are strange hyper-efficient results which SG Foxcroft told me are ‘completely irreproducible at will’).

    It is well known that CO2 in a hot fire absorbs energy and converts to CO then back again depending on conditions. Roughly speaking I recall it as:

    C+O2 => CO2 + 32 MJ/kg of C
    CO2 +24MJ/kg of C => CO+ 1/2 O2
    CO+ 1/2 O2 => CO2 + 24 MJ/kg of C

    Classic zero-sum game.

    To reverse any of these processes takes as much energy (or more) than you get out of it later. Excess electricity? Make H2 and burn it again after a few hours when the wind dies or just pump it into the nearest natural gas pipeline.

    The idea that CO is a reasonable intermediary on the way to producing liquid fuels is silly. Yes it is interesting, but it is not a viable alternative to lots of better choices. Feeding algae ponds to produce oil is far more efficient and you don’t need SASOL to come to the party.

    Another possiblity is to drive a different chemcial reaction tuned for maximum energy density (chemical battery). Then get the energy back as electricity.

  26. R. Gates says:
    October 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Some say that under about 150 ppm CO2 plant life as we know it is not sustainable. I thnk volcanoes and forest fires would compensate for humanity’s stupidity and we would never achieve such reduction as to kill the biosphere. In any case, life is extremely resilient and something else would follow our dismiss.

  27. “The key advantage is that there is no competition with the food supply,”
    All depends upon where they would put their wide solar panels arrays needed for the artificial photosynthesis.
    Last week I was in Aosta and I seen large ex-vineyards transformed in solar arrays.
    That’s no competition with food supply?

  28. A great question from R Gates: If we could artificially control our atmosphere’s CO2 level, while gaining useable energy, what lower limit on CO2 would we choose?

    Now we can talk about the optimal CO2 level. We know that too low and plants do not grow well. We know that the CO2 level has been many times higher than now at times in the past without hitting a “tipping point” turning the Earth into Venus.

    My guess is that something like 500 or 600, compared to the current level in the high 300’s would be an improvement. Faster plant growth with longer growing seasons, ie more food for people, would be a good thing. Large parts of North America and Eurasia would become better farmland.

    Of course the real answer would be empirical, not model or guess driven.

  29. Crispin in Waterloo: The idea that CO is a reasonable intermediary on the way to producing liquid fuels is silly. Yes it is interesting, but it is not a viable alternative to lots of better choices. Feeding algae ponds to produce oil is far more efficient and you don’t need SASOL to come to the party.

    Lots of silly ideas turn out well. Which of these technologies will scale up fastest and cut costs the most is not known now. If I had to bet now, I’d bet on concentrated PV powering the conversion of CO2 to CO and then liquid fuel.

  30. R. Gates says:
    October 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm
    Question: Suppose this scheme really did work, and energy could be economically harnessed by removing atmospheric CO2. What would a lower limit be? i.e. Would some global consensus for CO2 levels be agreed to below which we would stop using this process to get energy? It might start getting a wee bit cold if levels dropped much below 200-250 ppm.

    We will probably have to create a world-wide regulatory agency to prevent the ‘Big Air’ companies from removing too much CO2. It’s just like those greedy corporations to suck out all the air and then sell us electric blankets at an exorbitant profit.

    Also, the UN security forces will have to be bolstered in order to ensure security of the air supply. We must not let a C02 reduction gap reduce our national security. No war for air!

  31. “Ian Forman 11.47am said: If only all the bright contributors to WUWT would (as I thought they claimed they could) convincingly demonstrate that CO2 emissions are only in the very slightest linked to climate change, wanted or unwanted, we’d probably hear no more such remarks “

    Forget CO2. Would you accept the link between:
    1. The burning of fossil fuels and their eventual depletion?
    2. Drilling for oil and the occasional oil spill?
    3. An oil dependent economy and the funding oil rich rogue states?

    This catalyzed photosynthesis innovation, if it becomes practical*, would nicely break all three in time.

    *Don’t forget water. Eventually replacing 20 million bbl per day of US hydrocarbon consumption by a synthetic scheme means three to four times that many moles of H2O has to come from somewhere. Total US tap water (non irrigation) use is about 10 million bbl per day by comparison.

  32. “Crispin in Waterloo says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm
    Feeding algae ponds to produce oil is far more efficient and you don’t need SASOL to come to the party.”

    No, algae is far more efficient at producing hydrocarbons per solar flux unit than other biofuel crops, especially corn, but natural existing photosynthesis tops out on the order of 1% conversion, while photovoltaic monocrystalline Si is now at 20%; concentrated solar may allow that to climb much higher. Also algae has some well know economic hurdles that have not fallen despite intense effort: contamination by other species or sensitivity to environmental conditions in the open, or expensive closed containers.

  33. But.. but… I don’t want to reduce CO2 plant food! We need it to feed the people. OMG think about the billions of people! Oh, the humanity! GK

  34. Ray says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm
    Some say that under about 150 ppm CO2 plant life as we know it is not sustainable
    =======================================================
    Ray, our C3 plants would stop at around 200ppm….Rice, Wheat, Vegetables, Fruits, algae, etc
    Low CO2 levels in the past more than likely helped develop the C4’s….grasses, sugarcane, corn,..etc……
    And it’s the combination of the two that have kept CO2 levels low enough to be limiting ever since…….
    Why in this world would anyone want to keep CO2 levels so low they are limiting to plant growth?

  35. Great, just another company that will want loan guarantees so they could move production facilities, were they to actually reach that far, to China then declare bankruptcy. Better keep a close eye on who all is investing in this company, that’ll say a lot about what it is all about.

  36. kwinterkorn says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    A great question from R Gates: If we could artificially control our atmosphere’s CO2 level, while gaining useable energy, what lower limit on CO2 would we choose?

    Now we can talk about the optimal CO2 level. We know that too low and plants do not grow well. We know that the CO2 level has been many times higher than now at times in the past without hitting a “tipping point” turning the Earth into Venus.

    My guess is that something like 500 or 600, compared to the current level in the high 300′s would be an improvement.
    ====================================================================
    My guess would be somewhere between 1000 ppm and 2000 ppm…..
    …that’s already been shown in greenhouses

    In a sane world, we would be digging that CO2 back up, and putting it in the atmosphere…
    …and having conversations about keeping the levels up

    No different than we do any other fertilizer that’s been sequestered……….

  37. Falstaff says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Forget CO2. Would you accept the link between:
    1. The burning of fossil fuels and their eventual depletion?
    2. Drilling for oil and the occasional oil spill?
    3. An oil dependent economy and the funding oil rich rogue states?

    1) Well, duh! What did you expect?
    2) Name something without risk.
    3) The USA buys most of the oil it imports from Canada. I thought the Conservatives were back in power. Are they still rogue? Anyhoo, buy drilling more of our own oil and creating more refineries, we can import less.

  38. >> “… while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said.<<

    In other words, it reduces none of the CO2 emissions.

  39. To Robert M:

    Honestly. You and I and many other CAGW skeptics are probably in close agreement on most substantial issues. And R Gates believes differently. But unloading on R gates with your ad hominems is wrong. I disagree with R Gates posts mosts of the time, but I know that he is always polite and often at least poses issues in a way that could lead toward and not away from science. A blog at which everyone is in agreement would be boring and useless, like many of the pro-CAGW sites. Energetic debate, even with some pointed humor, if clever, is great fun.

    Personal attacks at the level in your post above do not put you in the best light, nor the rest of us who may think this site is important, maybe even historically important. If blogging must be a bloodsport to satisfy you, surely there are other sites for that.

    KW

  40. How much environmental damage is done in the manufacture of the equipment? Is is being made to Chinese standards of environmental care, or under Western regulations (rhetorical question!)?

  41. R. Gates says:
    October 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Question: Suppose this scheme really did work, and energy could be economically harnessed by removing atmospheric CO2. What would a lower limit be? i.e. Would some global consensus for CO2 levels be agreed to below which we would stop using this process to get energy? It might start getting a wee bit cold if levels dropped much below 200-250 ppm.
    _______________________________________________________________________
    And if it drops that low you can forget about eating…..

    If you are really determined to get rid of CO2 then how about pumping it into green houses to grow food (or fuel) At least that isn’t committing economic suicide.

  42. How very idiotic. In case no one realized, carbon dioxide is where all of our food comes from. First the total stupidity of turning corn into “fuel”, now this further stupidity.

    Just speaking to my wife’s cousin in Kansas today . . . the farmers are all out picking corn. Yield looks to be about 40 to 45 bushels per acre . . . as against 145 bushels per acre about 3 to 4 years ago. And she said that the stored reserves farmers store were already running out.

    But if it is famine that is wanted, this is another good way of bringing it on.

  43. Falstaff says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    *Don’t forget water. Eventually replacing 20 million bbl per day of US hydrocarbon consumption by a synthetic scheme means three to four times that many moles of H2O has to come from somewhere. Total US tap water (non irrigation) use is about 10 million bbl per day by comparison.

    Don’t forget that when all that synthetic fuel is burned the combustion products consist mostly of CO2 and water, process water can be recycled, and all the hydrogen content of the synthetic fuel returns to water when it is oxidized. It then eventually falls as rain and returns to the earths water cycle where it came from.

    The Spanish syn fuel looks to be just a repeat of thermal polymerization which has been available for commercial use since 1996 as developed by Changing World Technologies. The only important difference is that they are using biomass from algae and cyano bacteria rather than plant crops. The technology has been viable at oil prices greater than about $90 / BBL in year 2000 dollars. The only hook has been commercial interest and getting plants approved with NIMBY pressures from green zealots who see it as just another evil oil process. Using that technology we could manufacture essentially unlimited amounts of hydrocarbon base chemicals, limited only by a supply of waste heat sufficient to generate the necessary process temps of between 250 deg C and 500 deg C and some hydrocarbon feed stock.

    Any feedstock could be used, that contains both carbon and hydrogen, trash waste plastic, biomass, cultivated feed stocks like grasses, crop waste, or algae all could be used. There is no oil shortage we can make all we need as a convenient energy carrier. We only need the original energy input which could be any source of thermal energy of high enough quality to achieve the required process temps, and secondary energy needs to power pumps etc.

    Larry

  44. I think Scott Covert had it right, up top. A really inefficient battery. Like hydrogen.

    I think the Invisible Hand’s brass knucks this time round are the proliferating shale gas discoveries. Those who put all their money on NIMBY alternatives are going to end up battered nearly, or entirely, to death.

  45. Kudos to Prof. Kenis & his team for pursuing this research….the sooner that mankind realizes that carbon dioxide is a resource worth capturing & processing, and not just an emissions constituent, the better. There are all sorts of useful products that can be produced from this molecule. My group is working on several competing processes, more to follow.

  46. LarryOldtimer says:
    October 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    How very idiotic. In case no one realized, carbon dioxide is where all of our food comes from. First the total stupidity of turning corn into “fuel”, now this further stupidity.

    Just speaking to my wife’s cousin in Kansas today . . . the farmers are all out picking corn. Yield looks to be about 40 to 45 bushels per acre . . . as against 145 bushels per acre about 3 to 4 years ago. And she said that the stored reserves farmers store were already running out.

    But if it is famine that is wanted, this is another good way of bringing it on.
    ____________________________________________________________________
    Unfortunately that seems to be what is planned for us. With the 2008 food crisis Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Goldman Sachs made record profits. Now with the mid west flooding this spring, Soros & Rothschild and others are snapping up farmland as farmers bankrupt. Over 90% of American farmers work outside their home to support their farms so the over 20% unemployment rate is not helping.

    BTW for farmers the price of grain never went back down after 2008 when feed prices more than doubled, putting the local chicken plants out of business and likely the 400 area chicken farms that supplied them. If we do not have another food crisis by spring I will be very very surprised.

    This gives a pretty factual account of what is going on: https://projectpangaia.wordpress.com/category/bio-fuel/

    Oh and around my area we had over a month of drought so the corn is knee high, brown with no ears – GRIM

    This is the report from before our local corn crop died:
    Thursday, June 30, 2011: USDA: Corn Stocks Down 15 Percent from June 2010 Soybean Stocks Up 8 Percent All Wheat Stocks Down 12 Percent: http://climateerinvest.blogspot.com/2011/06/usda-corn-stocks-down-15-percent-from.html

  47. This sounds more like people searching for a problem then a solution. Nothing all that wrong with the concept. Like all these apparently simple things honorably complex with the details are examined.

  48. The Science abstract page is here. I’ve read the paper, and the authors are properly modest in their claims. Unlike the UI press release.

    The press release has a few objective errors. For example, it says that, “The ionic liquids stabilize the intermediates in the reaction so that less electricity is needed to complete the conversion.” In fact, the ionic liquids lower the overpotential of the reaction, meaning the reaction goes at a lower driving Voltage. It still requires exactly the same amount of electricity — meaning the number of electrons required to produce CO from CO2 (two electrons).

    It’s possible that the ionic liquid suppressed side reactions — which would use excess electrons (more electricity) — but the paper doesn’t say that.

    The press release also says, “The first step to making fuel, turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, is too energy intensive. It requires so much electricity to drive this first reaction that more energy is used to produce the fuel than can be stored in the fuel.

    This is pretty muddled. The same amount of electricity is always required to produce the CO (fuel) itself. If the process is inefficient, i.e., if there are side reactions, then some of the electrons (electricity) are diverted into side products. But side-products is not what they’re talking about. They’re talking about catalysis, which lowers the activation barrier and makes a reaction faster or more efficient (or both), but doesn’t change the electron count. The two PR sentences are confused about the difference between energy and electricity.

    Not only that, but Thermodynamics tells us that no process is ever 100% efficient. Therefore, it will always require more energy to produce CO from CO2 than the CO is worth itself.

    Photosynthesis works because the energy is free to plants. Using electricity generated elsewhere — even through solar power — to reduce CO2 to CO for fuels will always be a net energy loss. Presently, the reported process is at 87% efficiency but that’s only at the lowest Voltage. At higher driving Voltages, which should increase the rate of CO production, energy is lost to resistive heating and the efficiency decreases.

    The scientists involved did a nice piece of work, and made a nice discovery. They hypothesized a more efficient reaction, did the experimental test, and found a positive outcome. They were properly diffident in their peer-reviewed report. It’s a fine example of productive science and congratulations are in order.

    The problem comes because the successful experiment has been over-sold in the inflamed context of AGW. It’s about PR people at universities, and universities looking for the fashionable limelight that can be touted in DC during the budget process. The technical process is about a million miles away from commercial reality. Entropy says it will probably never be suitable to produce liquid fuels in a commercially viable way in competition with fossil fuels or nuclear (fission or fusion).

  49. “hotrod (Larry L) says:
    October 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm
    [...]
    Don’t forget that when all that synthetic fuel is burned the combustion products consist mostly of CO2 and water, process water can be recycled, and all the hydrogen content of the synthetic fuel returns to water when it is oxidized. It then eventually falls as rain and returns to the earths water cycle where it came from.”

    Sure, I did not suggest water would vanish from the planet. The whole point of synthetic fuels however is to use them in transportation, an open system, so one does not get closed loop, process water back directly as might possible if burned at power plant. If the proposed system was tapping an aquifer for the water in, say, the US southwest to take advantage of the of sun there they won’t get the water back “as rain”.

  50. Pat Franks, well said. My remnant physical organic chemistry was telling me the same things.

  51. “Pat Frank says:
    October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Not only that, but Thermodynamics tells us that no process is ever 100% efficient. …
    Yes it does. So then what are you getting at in the following?
    Photosynthesis works because the energy is free to plants. Using electricity generated elsewhere — even through solar power — to reduce CO2 to CO for fuels will always be a net energy loss.

    Plants also lose energy in converting from light to chemical energy, and the solar energy from PV is ‘free’ in the sense that the light is free, even if the PV panels are not. The point seems to be to discover the most efficient way to make syn fuel.

  52. George (Jim) Hebbard PE says:
    October 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    “……Fortunately Andrea Rossi’s October 6 E-Cat test was a major success, and energy efficiency will never need concern us again.

    Q.E.D.”
    ______________________________________________________________________
    Since no one else followed up on this I will.

    Here is the link for the guy who asked: http://freeenergytruth.blogspot.com/2011/10/ecat-test-mainstream-finally-break-9.html

    It is a blog because the “Official Media” has not yet reported it.
    Whether it is the truth I have no idea but it seems reall.

  53. Josualdo – thanks for the link. Certainly that process will produce the desired end, but the means (solar energy, photosynthesis, electromagnetic fields) to the end do not justice the high cost of the product.

  54. I predict it will require more energy into the process then it gennerates just as the U.S. ethanol scam does.

  55. Falstaff, even if the light on a PV cell is free, one is using the electricity it generates to produce a synfuel — say CO — from CO2. The energy in the produced CO will be less than the energy in the electricity that was used to produce it. Therefore, one is always better off using the PV current to power things directly.

    Even at low efficiency, plants make out because they contribute nothing to building and maintaining the sun. The light is free all the way back through the source.

    Even at an electrolysis conversion efficiency of 100%, one is only at break-even with respect to the delivered energy. Transmission losses and the cost of the PV production and maintenance is extra, so the total process still amounts to a net loss.

    The only way to make the CO2 to CO process economically viable is if the electrolysis efficiency is greater than 100%, to pay for the upstream costs. That is physically impossible unless one has a supernatural source of electrons. Or the process would pay off if CO becomes so precious that its market value is more than the production costs. But that will never happen.

    OK, it could happen in the event of a draconian green tyranny that forbade the use of any and all fossil fuels or fission power. In that event electrical power of any sort would become extremely expensive and precious, and the means of exchange would be measurable in units of triple-A flashlight batteries. Batteries themselves would be available only to the very rich. And then, of course, no one would have the available power to electrolyze CO2 into CO anyway.

  56. They’re stealing food from plants?!
    /sarc

    Okay, joking aside, I can see potential applications in scrubbing CO2 from the air of enclosed environments, like in submarines. However, if the first step is the conversion of CO2 to carbon monoxide, just imagine the result if that carbon monoxide leaks.

  57. How many square miles need to be covered per gigawatt?
    What land can be utilised to site these systems?
    How will the electricity be stored for when people actually want to use it?
    How much maintenance is required?
    What is the lifespan of the equipment?
    What is the cost of the electrical grid needed to support it?
    Is it economically feasible?

  58. Pat Frank and Astoneril,

    The idea that might be economically feasible is to put the solar farms in deserts and transport the fuel to the people who live a ways away. Say in S. E. California, in Arizona or New Mexico, and transport the fuel to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson or Albuquerque. It really is not dumber (should the process be made cheap) than carrying petroleum by tanker from Indonesia to the Port of Los Angeles, and then hauling gasoline to Las Vegas. It just depends on how cheaply (all costs considered) it can be done.

    to others: There is no risk of reducing the CO2 too much — the fuel will be burned and the CO2 returned to the atmosphere.

  59. Gail Combs, thanks for the link to the ECAT. It still looks like a scam to me, albeit a very elaborate scam.

    It isn’t hard to show that the thing works. It’s hot! Hook the sucker up to a Stirling engine, drive an electrical generator, feed the power back into it, detach the external electricity supply, and see how much electricity it supplies to an external machine, and for how long. Rossi et al. have done everything else these last 6 months except show that it works.

  60. The most useful solar/wind device I can think of is one that concentrates atmospheric CO2 to 1,000 ppm to feed greenhouses.

    Currently they burn fossil fuels to get the CO2.

    Such a device would reduce CO2 emissions AND reduce atmospheric CO2 AND produce more food.

    I’ll speculate that such a device hasn’t been developed because the CAGW crowd don’t want to highlight the fact that more atmospheric CO2 means more food thru higher crop yields.

    Solar powered fractional distillation of air appears feasible, but then I’m not an engineer.

  61. Pat Frank says:
    October 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm
    “The only way to make the CO2 to CO process economically viable is if the electrolysis efficiency is greater than 100%, to pay for the upstream costs. ”

    No. Here in Europe we have trading platforms for electricity, spot markets, the biggest one being the EEX. The spot market prize for electricity fluctuates with the interplay of supply and demand. Even if you had only thermal base load plants and no intermittent power sources like wind and solar, the varying demand would lead to daily fluctuations of the prize at the exchange. So it will always, even under total absense of newfangled green power sources like wind and solar, make ECONOMIC sense to run some peaker plants that you run only to exploit the high prizes during peak demand, or alternatively, store energy from a cheap thermal baseload plant and use the storage during peak times.

    Pumped hydr storage with a round-trip efficiency of max. 85% has ALWAYS been economically viable this way, long before any green movement.

  62. Falstaff says:
    October 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm
    “especially corn, but natural existing photosynthesis tops out on the order of 1% conversion, while photovoltaic monocrystalline Si is now at 20%; concentrated solar may allow that to climb much higher. ”

    You are right in that Si PV is more efficient than photosynthesis, but concentrated solar is not the way to increase that – it only concentrates more light on one cell, but the percentage of the light energy converted does not increase.

    What you can do is use multi-junction PV cells; in the lab they achieve up to 40% ATM, beating the theoretical 33% limit of a single-junction cell. But they are, for the moment, too expensive to make it worthwhile.

    The endothermic effects of such high efficiency conversions will be interesting to watch; the converted energy can’t contribute to local heat.

  63. Easier ti convert biowaste into methane to fuel generators to produce electricity which is being done now on many farms in the UK with the CO2 produced fed to the crops via the greenhouse atmosphere. Crops also grow bigger and faster.

  64. They speak of “unwanted” climate warming while we are in a glacial period. The earth is too cold, not too warm, and has too little atmospheric CO2, not too much.

    We need removal of CO2 from the air like we need a hole in the head.

  65. The world will beat a path to the door of the man who invents a perpetual motion mouse trap.
    ===============

  66. Aside from the angry rantings of Robert M., it seems my question about the lower limit of CO2 in the atmosphere has raised some interesting and intelligent discussion…which of course was my whole point.

    I would however seriously question the complete fairness of the moderation on this site, for Robert M. choose to call me an “inconceivably stupid jerk”, and the mods let it pass, yet I am 100% sure that if I had used the same language toward one of the anointed ones here like Willis or Lord Monckton, it would have been snipped and I would have been put in “time out” …again.

  67. In reply to R. Gates October 8, 2011 at 6:23 am:

    I believe this is the first time I agree with you. Anthony should have snipped the personal insult.

    As far as your original question, CO2 levels clearly need to be above the limit that would shut down photosynthesis, and that would be an absolute minimum. The ideal level would be higher, probably much higher than even current levels.

  68. I just happened across this site, and had already read about the research. The comments here are fascinating. I can only imagine similar declarations from like-minded nattering nabobs of negativity if they had read 50 years ago that the computing power of an entire room of processors would one day rest in my hands, inside the tablet device on which I type this while sitting on the John taking a crap.

  69. Stretch ledford says:
    October 8, 2011 at 7:56 am
    “I can only imagine similar declarations from like-minded nattering nabobs of negativity if they had read 50 years ago that the computing power of an entire room of processors would one day rest in my hands, inside the tablet device on which I type this while sitting on the John taking a crap.”

    Moore’s Law does not apply to the energy business.

  70. Stretch Ledford: The comments here are fascinating.

    Which ones? For, against, undecided on fuel from CO2? For, against, undecided on Andrea Rossi’s device?

    Some of us actually read the prognostications 50 years ago, and no one at the time foresaw the incredible growth in computing power; lots of people forecast an enormous energy industry from harvesting solar power, and it’s only lately started happening, and requires tax subsidies almost everywhere. Which great development from 50 years ago that was your favorite did not happen?

    Come, come, fellow, be specific. Which comments here did you find interesting, and how, and why?

  71. R. Gates [October 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm] says:

    “Question: Suppose this scheme really did work, and energy could be economically harnessed by removing atmospheric CO2. What would a lower limit be? i.e. Would some global consensus for CO2 levels be agreed to below which we would stop using this process to get energy? It might start getting a wee bit cold if levels dropped much below 200-250 ppm.

    One of your heroes already discussed this while he was talking to another one of your heroes …

    Therefore, it is foolish to demand that policy makers reduce CO2 to 280 ppm. Indeed, if, with a magic wand, we reduced CO2 from today’s 389 ppm to 280 ppm that change would increase Earth’s heat radiation to space by almost 2 watts (per square meter). The planet would rapidly move toward a colder climate, probably colder than the Little Ice Age. Whoever wielded the magic wand might receive a Middle Ages punishment, such as being drawn and quartered. - James Hansen, from ‘Conversation with Bill McKibben‘ dated December 12, 2010. [see: PDF from Columbia.edu], [also see: Discussion at WUWT].

    I believe that even Hansen realizes that there is trouble at low CO2 values (unfortunately he things the same of higher values). I believe that in the above quote, Hansen was preemptively trying to clamp-down the knee-jerk tendency from his leftist allies like McKibben to ‘race-to-the-bottom’ for lower and lower CO2 levels once they get started. We have seen this type of thing elsewhere, for example with States and their DUI/DWI laws, starting at one blood alcohol value as ‘impaired’ and continuing to lower it over time. There are no real bounds to human stupidity. Given enough time, we will explore every rabbit hole and try out every idiotic idea that someone comes up with (witness AGW alarmism).

    Like several commenters hinted above, we need a new organization called 1000.org to counter this madness.

  72. If this works it will produce portable, storable power that is also rather safe. If it converts air to liquid fuel it would be a big advantage over converting food to liquid fuel. It is no surprise the end result is like an inefficient solar panel, but how else can you put the stored energy of solar panels on trans-oceanic flights to Aruba or Copenhagen for GHG planning sessions?

    All it would take to make this a money making enterprise is for governments to mandate use of this fuel as a requirement for landing at international airports. They’ve done crazier things.

  73. Septic Matthew says:
    October 8, 2011 at 9:08 am
    “The latest PV Cells that can be used in concentrated solar PV arrays are about 40% efficient. The most efficient fully tested panel is 32%: ”

    Then this must be multijunction cells. “Expected future efficiencies of multijunction photovoltaic cell are nearly 50%”

    http://www.solardaily.com/reports/Everphoton_HCPV_Module_Efficiency_Reaches_Record_High_999.html

    – ok; so they use a very expensive multijunction cell for their concentrated solar. It’s not the concentrator that makes the high efficiency; but they need the concentrator to make the best use of the very expensive cell.

  74. DirkH,

    The point was and is that efficiencies much higher than natural photosynthesis are achievable.

    This quote of yours was false as written: concentrated solar is not the way to increase that – it only concentrates more light on one cell, but the percentage of the light energy converted does not increase.

    “concentrated solar” includes both concentration and higher efficiency PV cells. Your correction makes that clear.

  75. I have been surprised at the reaction to my post at 11.47am October 7th. Heaven forfend, some even seem to think me a warmist! They dissected my words remarkably, missing the point completely. My purpose in suggesting that the bright sparks of WUWT should demonstrate (I meant to the outside world) the truth about CO2 was simply to go on the attack against the warmists because by waiting, as one person suggested, until they prove that CO2 is the culprit, we are letting them win by default, as it all just drags on year after year with the result that they can say “CO2 emissions are linked to climate change” with impunity: and hence there is no progress. I want to see them at least put on the defensive, but preferably forced to admit they have no answer to our case against them.

  76. Septic Matthew says:
    October 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm
    “DirkH,
    The point was and is that efficiencies much higher than natural photosynthesis are achievable.”

    No doubt about that. If you followed my comments, I have repeatedly made clear that I’m not against solar or taxpayer funded solar research but against the widescale deployment of technology that needs to be subsidized. As long as people pay for their solar installations themselves because it makes sense to them – for instance in a remote area where there’s no grid or an instable one – more power to them (literally).

    “This quote of yours was false as written: concentrated solar is not the way to increase that – it only concentrates more light on one cell, but the percentage of the light energy converted does not increase. “concentrated solar” includes both concentration and higher efficiency PV cells. Your correction makes that clear.”

    Yes, you’re right. I didn’t know that multijunction cells are already used outside the labs. I’ve learned something new, thanks for that.

  77. From DirkH October 7, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    What you can do is use multi-junction PV cells; in the lab they achieve up to 40% ATM, beating the theoretical 33% limit of a single-junction cell. But they are, for the moment, too expensive to make it worthwhile.

    http://www.uni-solar.com/uni-solar-difference/technology/

    Uni-Solar (United Solar Ovonic, division of Energy Conversion Devices), has been profitably making their amorphous silicon triple-junction cells for a while now. They make the flexible “rolled” panels, peel-and-stick, unroll onto a suitable surface (metal roof preferred), and a few similar products, all durable and cost-efficient.

    Note in their 2010 Technology Roadmap (pdf), they only claim 8.2% conversion efficiency vs 9-22% for the competition (pg 8), yet greater energy yield as they produce in lower light conditions than others, even on cloudy days. The Roadmap has goals of 10% for 2011, 12% for 2012, with the “shoot for the moon” goal of eventually 20%.

    Seems pathetic compared to the efficiencies you mention, but I trust Uni-Solar to provide closer to real-world numbers than otherwise, partly due to their having an output warranty, no lower than 80% of new after 25 years. Who else puts their money on the line like that?

    I note in Septic Matthew’s 9:08 am comment the link to a just-tested 32% efficient concentrated solar panel, with another mention of a 40% efficient “in the lab” PV cell. I haven’t heard addressed the problem with concentrated solar of cells deteriorating significantly faster than in non-concentrated use. Someone let me know when the makers can warranty 80% output after 25 years. At that link it specifically mentions cell replacement as part of the maintenance of that concentrated solar panel. Also, last I heard, due to the reflectors involved, concentrated needs being aimed at the sun and won’t work on cloudy days with diffuse sunlight.

    A (virtually) zero-maintenance proven product, backed with a 25 year performance warranty, vs a theoretically 3-4 times more productive system (need to see the actual yields) needing solar tracking and a maintenance budget, when they finally hit the market at who-knows-what price. If I was buying then, especially if no subsidies involved, I know which one I’d pick.

  78. It’s clear that many people, especially journalists, don’t understand the principle of conservation of energy.

    If you’re going to be making a fuel that releases chemical energy, that energy has first to be stored in that fuel. Using a diffuse source of energy such a solar, to make a fuel that’s required to have high-intensity, requires a very large area of energy collection.

    Replace the PV (or solar-thermal) with nuclear, especially a molten-salt type reactor, and making fuels from CO2 makes sense as one is stepping down the energy ladder instead of trying to climb it.

  79. Tom_R says:
    October 8, 2011 at 7:03 am
    In reply to R. Gates October 8, 2011 at 6:23 am:

    As far as your original question, CO2 levels clearly need to be above the limit that would shut down photosynthesis, and that would be an absolute minimum. The ideal level would be higher, probably much higher than even current levels.

    A good indication of the “safe” range of atmospheric CO2 levels, at least over the Phanerozoic, is given by this link, courtesy of Bill illis. It is quite a wide range:

    Looking at this would you feel that we are near the top or the bottom end of the safe range?
    Answer: the bottom end.

  80. I have a feeling nature has already invented this wheel. But there does seem to be a need for Geodesic Domes over all metro areas with glass coated, on the inside, with bacteria of a transparent nature, that does the job already. Hummmmmmm…. I wonder….

  81. From a purely statistical perspective, based on the time frames when homo sapiens have emerged from their predecessors and the food grains which feed us also emerged, (i.e. over the past 800,000 years) it would seem that around 300 ppm is a nice area, conducive to both civilization and the animals and plants that support it. Some might want to look into the distant past for the optimum CO2 level, when the earth was covered with more steamy jungles (and human ancestors where more akin to tree shrews), and yes, perhaps some species flourished under these conditions, but it remains doubtful whether human civilization and the food grains that support it would flourish in steamy jungles and CO2 in the range of 600-1000 ppm or higher.

  82. Falstaff says:
    October 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm
    The point seems to be to discover the most efficient way to make syn fuel.

    Start with low cost natural gas CH4, instead of CO2.

    There are two reactions that happen when you burn fuel:

    C + 2O => CO2 + energy
    2H + O => H2O + energy

    The process can be reversed in this fashion

    CO2 + energy => C + 2O
    H2O + energy => 2H + O

    The problem is finding the energy to reverse the process. Plants currently do it, using energy from sunlight, at extremely low cost to the taxpayers. However, there are plans to change this. REDD hopes to take control over large sections of the earths plants, and thus charge taxpayers for reversing the process via carbon trading.

    By placing a price on reversing the process, which plants currently provide for free, it then becomes possible to sell this currently free service back to the world. In effect, the production of oxygen by plants becomes a commodity that people will have to pay for.

  83. “R. Gates says:
    October 9, 2011 at 12:53 pm
    From a purely statistical perspective, based on the time frames when homo sapiens have emerged from their predecessors and the food grains which feed us also emerged, (i.e. over the past 800,000 years) it would seem that around 300 ppm is a nice area.”

    Agriculture is at best 10 thousand years old based on the fossil evidence. The introduction of agriculture FOLLOWED a period of rapidly increasing CO2 levels globally. This is strong evidence that increasing CO2 levels caused made agriculture possible, by making it easier to grow plants.

    We are currently feeding more people than at any time in the past 800,000 years. CO2 levels have never been higher. This increase in the global food supply is highly correlated to the increase in global CO2 levels. There is a much better correlation between food supply and CO2 that there is between temperature and CO2.

    Thus, it could well be that increased CO2 levels are what are feeding the people of the earth. As required by science, there is a causative mechanism to explain this. We know that CO2 helps plants grow. We know that people rely on plants from food. This is all strong evidence that lowering CO2 would require a reducing in the earth’s population (or a technological breakthrough that breaks the connection between CO2 and food).

  84. phlogiston says:
    October 8, 2011 at 8:43 pm
    A good indication of the “safe” range of atmospheric CO2 levels, at least over the Phanerozoic, is given by this link, courtesy of Bill illis. It is quite a wide range:

    That is an interesting graph. From an eyeball analysis it shows that CO2 sensitivity is likely lower that 1.5C per doubling, Looking at the graph there are a series of points in the 3000-7000 range that all appear to line up around the 0.5 – 1 C range.

    It would be interesting to see this graph with a “best fit” curve, to see what paleo observations say is the CO2 sensitivity.

  85. Dirk, the point is that using a solar driven process to make carbon fuels out of CO2 will always be a net energy loss. Spot prices for electricity don’t matter in this equation.

  86. Gosh, reminds me of the electricity-out-of-air powerplant in the famous novel Atlas Shrugged, which has solid ideas for human life but the powerplant is fictional. Though technology advances – every day I use the portable communicator from Star Trek, a cellular telephone, flip-open version even.

    If, repeat if, such a thing were possible it would facilitate fuel being produced where the energy is. The combination of a buried mini nuclear powerplant that some are proposing with higher CO2 than in the countryside would produce fuel right in your neighbourhood.
    Yeah, well, I am fantasizing on the achievability of several elements of that. :-)

    As for someone’s comment on letting plants to do the conversion then harvesting them, the concern is competition with food needs. Using non-edible plants that grow on scruff land is the holy grail of plants-to-fuel researchers, but I have not heard of any that work well. Personally I was tempted to research dandelions as they seem to grow everywhere, but since IIRC you can eat dandelion greens I dropped that idea.

    Then there are the plant to oil converters called animals – fatten them pigs up folks. (Well, the oil tends to gel at normal temperatures – in refined form it is called “lard”?)

    Keith, poor country kid, Silly on Sunday….

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