Energy

Carbon dioxide from the air converted into methanol

Converting CO2 from the air to methanol would not only help reduce the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas, but also provide clean burning fuel in the process
Converting CO2 from the air to methanol would not only help reduce the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas, but also provide clean burning fuel in the process
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Converting CO2 from the air to methanol would not only help reduce the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas, but also provide clean burning fuel in the process
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Converting CO2 from the air to methanol would not only help reduce the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas, but also provide clean burning fuel in the process

The danger posed by rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide has seen many schemes proposed to remove a proportion it from the air. Rather than simply capture this greenhouse gas and bury it in the ground, though, many experiments have managed to transform CO2 into useful things like carbon nanofibers or even fuels, such as diesel. Unfortunately, the over-arching problem with many of these conversions is the particularly high operating temperatures that require almost counterproductive amounts of energy to produce relatively low yields of fuel. Now researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) claim to have devised a way to take CO2 directly from the air and convert it into methanol using much lower temperatures and in a correspondingly simpler way.

With the simplest structure of all alcohols, methanol can be used directly as a clean-burning fuel for appropriately modified internal combustion engines, as well as in fuel cells. It is also a very useful material for the production of other chemicals such as formaldehyde, from which such things as plastics, explosives, and paints can be made, along with transformation into dimethyl ether (a replacement for hydrocarbons in aerosols propellants), acetic acid, and a range of solvents, anti-freezes, and de-naturing agents.

To produce methanol from CO2 in the air, the researchers at USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences first bubbled captured air through an aqueous solution of pentaethylenehexamine (PEHA), an ammonia-derived organic compound with multiple amino groups that – at raised temperatures – helps form chemical derivatives from alcohols. They then added a catalyst made from ruthenium (a member of the platinum group) to promote hydrogen attachment to the CO2 when the mixture was subject to high pressure.

The solution was then heated to around 125° to 165° C (257° to 359° F), and around 79 percent of the CO2 was converted into methanol. Though the resulting methanol was still mixed with water as it was produced, the researchers state that it can be easily separated using simple distillation processes. In addition, with the new method operating at such comparatively low temperatures, minimum decomposition of the catalyst meant that the researchers were able to repeat the process five times with minimal loss of the catalyst effectiveness. It also uses a homogeneous catalyst (that is, a soluble catalyst in solution with the chemicals it is reacting with) resulting in a simpler and faster "one-pot" process.

Though the method is still in its infancy, the researchers are looking at ways to refine the process so that it could be scaled up to industrial levels, but they admit that such a system may be five to 10 years away and will probably be still more expensive than ordinary fuel production.

"Of course it won't compete with oil today, at around $30 per barrel," said Professor G.K. Prakash from USC's Department of Chemistry. "But right now we burn fossilized 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."

G.K. Prakash collaborated with George Olah and graduate student Jotheeswari Kothandaraman and senior research associates Alain Goeppert and Miklos Czaun of USC Dornsife.

The research was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: University of Southern California

16 comments
piperTom
First, in order to make any significant difference to the atmosphere, you'd have to remove billions of tons of carbon - Billions of Tons! Second, this process consumes hydrogen. Today, we get hydrogen from -- you guessed it -- fossil fuels. And you just assume that atmospheric CO2 is a crisis.
gizmowiz
Love that term 'Fossilized Sunshine'. The next time I have an argument with an ICE lover I'll inform him that he is driving a solar car but just doesn't know it!
yorik
Has anybody considered using this newfangled process called photosynthesis? I guess not many people know about it yet, or maybe 6th grad education isn't what it used to be.
iperov
Good news. Let's terraform Venus
inchiki
If i could buy a counter top hand wound carbon capture device it would help to remove some of my climate change guilt.
ivan4
Where did this obsession of removing plant food from the atmosphere come from? If it is the idea of climate scientists then why don't they heavily attack water vapour - it is a much greater greenhouse gas than CO2 ever will be.
UW
I'm surprised how strong the anti-science crowd is, here on Gizmag. Yes, atmospheric CO2 is a problem if you like liveable climates, piperTom, and no, water vapour is not our problem, ivan4, a primer on radiative forcing can be had on scienceofdoom.com . Also, there is enough evidence that the CO2 fertilization effect doesn't exist because it is restricted by the availability of other types of elements.
Billy Sharpstick
Hasn't anyone noticed that the products of alcohol combustion are water and CO2?! So this my be a great way of producing alcohol, but you can't make the argument that it is permanently removing or sequestering CO2. And how does the production cost of this compare with other fuels? I see that it requires heat.
Catweazle
If this process was of any value (which it isn't for reasons of thermal efficiency and because atmospheric CO2 is not a problem at current or future conceivable concentrations anyway - rather the opposite, in fact) it would run many times more efficiently if it recovered CO2 directly from combustion gases containing 10% or more CO2, instead of having to pump and compress 250+ times the volume to recover the 0.04% or so present in the atmosphere. As for *UW* with "Also, there is enough evidence that the CO2 fertilization effect doesn't exist because it is restricted by the availability of other types of elements."</i> The peer reviewed evidence in the serious scientific publications - as opposed to that from crackpot alarmist sites - very clearly proves you completely wrong. "CO2 fertilisation is increasing plant growth both on land and in the oceans. Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have helped boost green foliage across the world's arid regions over the past 30 years through a process called CO2 fertilisation, according to CSIRO research. In findings based on satellite observations, CSIRO, in collaboration with the Australian National University (ANU), found that this CO2 fertilisation correlated with an 11 per cent increase in foliage cover from 1982-2010 across parts of the arid areas studied in Australia, North America, the Middle East and Africa, according to CSIRO research scientist, Dr Randall Donohue." http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130708103521.htm ------------- "Increased carbon dioxide enhances plankton growth Coccolithophores -- tiny calcifying plants that are part of the foundation of the marine food web -- have been increasing in relative abundance in the North Atlantic over the last 45 years, as carbon input into ocean waters has increased. Their relative abundance has increased 10 times, or by an order of magnitude, during this sampling period. This finding was diametrically opposed to what scientists had expected since coccolithophores make their plates out of calcium carbonate, which is becoming more difficult as the ocean becomes more acidic and pH is reduced." http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160116215419.htm Note that the second link also debunks the alarmist myth of ocean acidification destroying carbonate-shelled organisms.
robo
Recent study by University of Potsdam and others says that we would be in an ice age today if CO2 levels were any lower than they are. With an ice age, you can't grow any food or raise animals like chickens or cows. We would quickly starve to death.
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