Berkeley Lab develops sustainable conversion technique for liquid fuels

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A technique developed by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has the potential to turn carbon dioxide into usable fuel.

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Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, have developed a technique for improving the conversion of Carbon Dioxide, or CO₂, into liquid fuels.

The study, published in the journal Nature Energy, provides a potential new method for sustainable fuel and chemical generation. It emerged from a long-term project that is a part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Liquid Sunlight Alliance program, according to campus professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Alexis Bell, who is one of the leaders on the project.

“Our work in the last five years or so has been devoted to finding ways to convert CO₂, carbon dioxide, electrochemically to use for chemicals and fuels,” Bell said.

According to Bell, copper can be used for developing CO₂ into liquid fuels. Previously, this method has been used to create various different products such as carbon monoxide, methane, formic acid and a bit of propanol, Bell said.

However, in order to create liquid fuels, researchers on the project needed to “focus this chemistry” into making ethylene and ethanol, C₂ products containing two carbon atoms.

Throughout the process, the team has identified the cost as being their main barrier. In order for the process to be considered “economical,” it would need to operate at a cost of $100 per ton of CO₂ or less, Bell noted.

According to a Berkeley Lab press release, if this engineering process becomes commercially viable, it has the potential to sustainably convert the most prevalent greenhouse gas, CO₂, into usable fuels.

One such fuel is diesel, Bell said. Ethylene can be coupled to form polymers called oligomers, which contain between nine, 11 and 13 carbon atoms. The oligomers the researchers have been producing “start to resemble diesel fuel,” according to Bell.

This emerging research is allowing researchers to take CO₂ from the atmosphere and reuse it to create carbon-containing fuels, Bell added.

“Instead of throwing that CO₂ into the atmosphere, we would be recycling the carbon to create useful products,” Bell said. “If we can do this sustainably, then we won’t be burdening the atmosphere with more CO₂ and all of the consequences of an increasing temperature rise.”

Contact Anna Armstrong at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @annavarmstrongg.