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Researchers find a way of making fuel from carbon dioxide: Study

MIT and Harvard University researchers have developed an efficient process to convert carbon dioxide into fuel

A schematic shows the formate process.
A schematic shows the formate process. (Courtesy: Shuhan Miao, Harvard Graduate School of Design)

High concentration of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (coal, gasoline, and natural gas) has been a cause of concern for long. 

Amid the climate crisis warnings, as the world is working more actively towards extracting carbon dioxide from the air, many researchers are exploring ways to turn it into something useful. Now, in a new study, engineers have developed a way to turn carbon dioxide into fuel.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have developed an efficient process that can convert carbon dioxide into “formate, a liquid or solid material that can be used like hydrogen or methanol to power a fuel cell and generate electricity,” an MIT press statement said. The findings were published recently in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

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The conversion process includes capturing the gas and converting it into a solid formate powder through an electrochemical process. The formate power is then used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, the statement explained. The researchers demonstrated this at a small, laboratory scale. However, they believe this process can be scalable and used to provide emission-free heat and power to homes. The process also showed a conversion rate of over 90%.

In the statements, the researchers explained the conversion process. Carbon dioxide is first converted into an intermediate form, liquid metal bicarbonate. This is then electrochemically converted into liquid potassium or sodium formate in an electrolyzer that uses low-carbon electricity, such as nuclear, wind, or solar power.

“The highly concentrated liquid potassium or sodium formate solution produced can then be dried, for example by solar evaporation, to produce a solid powder that is highly stable and can be stored in ordinary steel tanks for up to years or even decades,” the researchers explain.

Several steps of optimization developed by the research team made all the difference in changing an inefficient chemical conversion process into a practical solution, said study author Ju Li. “The formate fuel can potentially be adapted to power a range of uses, from home-sized units to large-scale industrial uses," the researchers said in the statement.

“This is for community or household demonstrations,” study author Zhen Zhang said in the statement, “but we believe that also in the future it may be good for factories or the grid.”

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