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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Jules Verne in Around The Moon had the spaceship’s internal CO2 removed by open tanks of potash. Is that feasible for real?

Scott Covert

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.

Really? The dept of energy actually supported something that has a positive potential?

Frumious Bandersnatch

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

Eric Gisin

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.

Robert M

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.

Mike Bromley the Canucklehead on the way to Kurdistan

FundingFishingAlert. Insert [feel_good_CAGW_mitigation_scheme] here.

Paul Westhaver

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

Matt

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

JN

How much energy does it take to produce the catalysts?

Ian Forman

“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).

Latitude

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

JeffC

snake oil …

Sean

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.

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………!!!

DirkH

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.

TerryS

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.

Ray

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.

R. Gates

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.

Septic Matthew

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.

George (Jim) Hebbard PE

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.

vboring

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.

DJ

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.

higley7

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.

George M

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

The Spanish have been producing oil from CO2 for some time now:
http://www.biopetroleo.com/english/
Of course it didn’t come up in the news.

Septic Matthew

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?

Show Me More Soylent Green!

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?

Robert M

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…)

Crispin in Waterloo

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.

Ray

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.

Massimo PORZIO

“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?

kwinterkorn

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.

Septic Matthew

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.

Show Me More Soylent Green!

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!

Falstaff

“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.

Falstaff

“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.

G. Karst

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

Latitude

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?

Kevin Schurig

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.

Latitude

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……….

More Soylent Green!

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.

Tom_R

>> “… while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions that are linked to unwanted climate change,” Kenis said.<<
In other words, it reduces none of the CO2 emissions.

kwinterkorn

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

Perry

Why re-invent the wheel? Nature does very well.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorophyll

John

I’m going to drive my Suburban around all night to provide some feedstock CO2 for them.

Chris Smith

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!)?

Gail Combs

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.

LarryOldtimer

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.

I’ll generate the electricity with my perpetual motion machine. What a hoot.