This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric CO2 Into low cost Fuel


The leaves are very good at using CO2, sun and water to produce energy. Therefore scientists want to find ways to emulate that ability, but to produce energy that can be used by people. Imagine jets made of sunlight and CO2 instead of using oil extracted by drilling oil.

This is where the technology known as Carbon Capture (or Carbon Removal) comes into play. An international research team from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, has created an “artificial leaf” that mimics the possibility of carbon cleansing in reality. But instead of making CO 2 in the atmosphere as a source of fuel, the leaves turn it into a useful alternative fuel.

The team’s research has been described in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Energy. The team is led by Yimin A. Wu, a researcher at the Center for Nanosized Materials at Argon National Laboratory (ILL) in Illinois and a professor of engineering at Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology (WIN). He was joined by researchers from both institutions, as well as California State University (Northridge) and Hong Kong City University.

The process is ten times more effective than photosynthesis in a plant. Researchers are not the only scientists working on this kind of technology. This is one way to use billions of tons of excess CO2 in the atmosphere. Climeworks, a start-up that uses CO2 from the air through direct air separation, is currently working with others to explore the potential of new facilities that convert this CO2 into renewable jet fuel.

Another startup called Carbon Engineering also began producing its own CO2 fuel. Other researchers say artificial leaves can easily maintain a home. Technology often involves the use of electricity to separate CO2 molecules. But the new process investigated by Wu’s team was to avoid using electricity, which he said made scaling easier because less infrastructure was needed.

The Wu Team’s process uses inexpensive red copper powder called copper oxide, which acts as a catalyst when mixed with water and CO2. When white light is directed at the mixture, it triggers a chemical reaction that produces oxygen and converts CO2 to methanol. The solution is then heated and the methanol is captured until it evaporates.

Wu plans to further improve technology efficiency and will soon start commercializing the process. Unlike start-ups such as Carbon Engineering, it is planned not to process CO2 captured by industry directly from the air. “CO2 itself comes from exhaust gas from the steel industry, the automotive industry or even the oil drilling industry,” he said. “We can use this off-gas and turn it into a useful chemical product.” Alternative fuels, whether used as a substitute for gasoline in a car or as a substitute for jet fuel made from crude oil, must be competitive.

Reducing emissions also reduces the need for more oil production. “This helps fight climate change by reducing CO2 emissions, but also providing sustainable energy,” Wu said.

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