NEW YORK– In a first, researchers including one of Indian origin have directly converted carbon dioxide from thin air into methanol fuel – a discovery that can create a sustainable fuel source from greenhouse gas emissions in the near future.
Methanol is a clean-burning fuel for internal combustion engines, a fuel for fuel cells and a raw material used to produce many petrochemical products.
The work, led by GK Surya Prakash and George Olah from the University of South Carolina (USC) is part of a broader effort to stabilise the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by using renewable energy to transform the greenhouse gas into its combustible cousin.
“We need to learn to manage carbon. That is the future,” said Prakash, professor of chemistry and director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.
The researchers bubbled air through an aqueous solution of pentaethylenehexamine (PEHA), adding a catalyst to encourage hydrogen to latch onto the CO2 under pressure.
They then heated the solution, converting 79 percent of the CO2 into methanol.
“Though mixed with water, the resulting methanol can be easily distilled,” Prakash added in a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Prakash and Olah hope to refine the process to the point that it could be scaled up for industrial use, though that may be five to 10 years away.
Of course it won’t compete with oil today at around $30 per barrel.
“But right now, we burn fossilised sunshine. We will run out of oil and gas but the Sun will be there for another five billion years. So we need to be better at taking advantage of it as a resource,” Prakash pointed out.
The new system operates at around 125-165 degrees Celsius, minimising the decomposition of the catalyst.
In a lab, the researchers demonstrated that they were able to run the process five times with only minimal loss of the effectiveness of the catalyst.