Solar-powered reactor converts CO2 into sustainable fuels

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Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a solar-powered reactor that can capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial processes or directly from the air and convert it into clean, sustainable fuels using solar energy. The team successfully demonstrated the conversion of CO2 into syngas, a key component of sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles into glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry.

Unlike previous tests, which used pure CO2 from a cylinder, the researchers collected CO2 from real-world sources such as industrial exhaust or the air itself. They were able to capture and concentrate the CO2, enabling its conversion into sustainable fuel. Although further improvements are required for industrial-scale implementation, the results published in the journal Joule represent a significant step toward producing clean fuels without relying on environmentally destructive oil and gas extraction.

Led by Professor Erwin Reisner’s research group in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, the team has been developing sustainable, net-zero carbon fuels inspired by photosynthesis. Their artificial leaf devices mimic the process by which plants convert sunlight into food, using solar energy to convert CO2 and water into fuels.

To make the technology practical, the researchers needed to actively capture CO2 from industrial processes or directly from the air. They drew inspiration from carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques, where CO2 is captured and stored underground. However, instead of storing the captured CO2, they aimed to utilize it by converting it into useful products, thereby reducing carbon emissions and eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

The researchers modified their solar-driven technology to selectively capture CO2 from flue gas or air. By bubbling air through an alkaline solution, the CO2 is trapped while other gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen, are safely released. This process allows for the concentration of CO2 from the air, facilitating its conversion into fuels and chemicals.

While challenges remain, such as enhancing the selectivity of the technology for highly diluted CO2 in the air, this research represents a promising approach to harnessing solar energy for sustainable fuel production and combating climate change.

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