University of Toronto Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (UTFASE) engineers have developed a technique powered by renewable energies such as solar or wind to turn carbon dioxide back into fuels. This release is only a coupe days after a major U.S. research team got their release out. The hunt is on.

The researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent have found a more efficient way, through the wonders of nanoengineering. Drs. Min Liu and Yuanjie Pang, along with a team of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in U of T Engineering, have developed a technique powered by renewable energies such as solar or wind.

Their catalyst takes climate-warming carbon-dioxide (CO2) and converts it to carbon-monoxide (CO), a useful building block for carbon-based chemical fuels, such as methanol, ethanol and diesel.

The team’s research paper has been published in the journal Nature.

The team’s solution is ‘sharp’: they start by fabricating extremely small gold “nanoneedles” – with the tip of each needle at 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. “The nanoneedles act like lightning rods for catalyzing the reaction,” said Liu.

When they applied a small electrical bias to the array of nanoneedles, they produced a high electric field at the sharp tips of the needles. This helps attract CO2, speeding up the reduction to CO, with a rate faster than any catalyst previously reported. This represents a breakthrough in selectivity and efficiency which brings CO2 reduction closer to the realm of commercial electrolysers. The team is now working on the next step: skipping the CO and producing more conventional fuels directly.

Liu said, “CO2 reduction is an important challenge due to inertness of the molecule.

Pang added, “We were looking for the best way to both address mounting global energy needs and help the environment. If we take CO2 from industrial flue emissions or from the atmosphere, and use it as a reagent for fuels, which provide long-term storage for green energy, we’re killing two birds with one stone.”

The third party comment is from Michael Graetzel, a professor of physical chemistry at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and a world leader in this field who said, “The field of water-splitting for energy storage has seen rapid advances, especially in the intensity with which these reactions can be performed on a heterogeneous catalyst at low overpotential – now, analogous breakthroughs in the rate of CO2 reduction using renewable electricity are urgently needed. The University of Toronto team’s breakthrough was achieved using a new concept of field-induced reagent concentration.”

Professor Sargent concluded the team’s public remarks with, “Solving global energy challenges needs solutions that cut across many fields. This work not only provides a new solution to a longstanding problem of CO2 reduction, but opens possibilities for storage of alternative energies such as solar and wind.”

The Canadians may well be in the technological lead due to the process design having an “attraction for the CO2.” Unless one is in the exhaust pipe of a controlled combustion, CO2 is in a very very small proportion of the atmosphere.

Professor Sargent also points out another use, the potential to store wind and solar in the form of common energy dense carbon fuels. This concept may have the strongest legs of all.

Both the Canadians and the American team at Argonne and the University of Illinois are splitting water to get free hydrogen to build fuels. Both are multistep processes for now.

Undaunted by the stability of CO2 the Canadians are leaping into a CO2 direct to fuel study. One wonders what else they learned that prompted that. Seems like there is more to this than they’ve said so far. Go Canada!


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