Air Into Fuel: Scientists Convert CO2 Directly Into Methanol for Fuel Cells and More

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©. Surya Prakash / University of Southern California

There have been quite a few ideas about what to do with all of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is fueling climate change. Carbon capture and storage schemes have been around for years like one from Harvard that uses plain old baking soda as well as technologies to take the CO2 and make something useful out of it.

Some technologies have created things like carbon nanofibers from the gas or even diesel fuel. A new breakthrough from scientists at the University of Southern California takes CO2 and turns it directly into methanol (its combustible cousin), which can be used in fuel cells, as a clean-burning fuel for internal combustion engines or to make things that normally require petrochemicals in their manufacturing.

USC says, "The researchers bubbled air through an aqueous solution of pentaethylenehexamine (or 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."

The major breakthrough here is that where other techniques for converting CO2 into methanol have required high temperatures and high concentrations of CO2, making them energy intensive, this new system operates at low temperatures and with lower concentrations of the gas, meaning the process can be powered by renewable energy.

This means that the resulting fuel is far more sustainable from both a production standpoint and because it acts to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

The researchers think the system could be scaled up in about five to 10 years, though don't expect it to be cheaper than oil, which is only $30 a barrel right now. The methanol could be an alternate fuel source as we transition over to a cleaner energy future.