Alternative Energy Scientists Make Fuel from CO2 Emissions and Sunlight

Published on November 26th, 2009 | by Jerry James Stone

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Scientists Make Fuel from CO2 Emissions and Sunlight

November 26th, 2009 by  
 

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Scientists from Sandia National Labs have successfully field-tested a machine that uses solar energy to convert CO2 waste from power plants into fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Cylindrical in shape, the device has both a hot and cold chamber with 14 Frisbee-like rings in the middle. The rings’ outer edges–made of iron oxide–are solar heated to 2,700 degrees which forces the composite to lose oxygen atoms.

As the rings rotate (one revolution a minute), they move in towards the cool chamber. There, carbon dioxide is added and the iron oxide composite takes back its missing oxygen atoms. The resulting carbon monoxide would be used in creating a synthesized liquid combustible fuel.

Invented by Rich Diver, we first discussed the device in January of last year. Until recently, it had only been tested in a laboratory. But a fully hand-built, and much larger, version was just successfully tested. “This is a first-of-its-kind prototype we’re evaluating,” Diver explains.

The device is called the Counter-Rotating-Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator or the CR5 for short. I think we’ll stick to that shorter title for now. This method of forced-photosynthesis was initially designed for creating cheap abundant hydrogen fuel.

“In the short term we see this as an alternative to sequestration,” SNL Advanced Materials Laboratory chemical engineer James Miller, who has also been part of the research, adds.

This type of CO2 recycling could take trapped carbon waste from power plants and then returned for production, instead of releasing it to the air. Though, the resulting syngas does just burn right back into CO2–not exactly ideal.

Regardless, we’re looking at 15-20 years before the tech is market ready. Researcher’s hope to achieve an efficiency of a few percent which is about double that of real-world photosynthesis.

“Ultimately, we believe we have to get in the range of 10% sunlight-to-fuels, and we’re a long way from doing that,” said Miller.

A few places we could use this tech now, the biggest CO2 polluting power plants in the U.S. (annually):

  1. The Scherer plant in Juliet, GA — 25.3 million tons
  2. The Miller plant in Quinton, AL — 20.6 million tons
  3. The Bowen plant in Cartersville, GA — 20.5 million tons
  4. The Gibson plant in Owensville, IN — 20.4 million tons
  5. The W.A. Parish plant in Thompsons, TX — 20 million tons

“People have known for a long time that theoretically it should be possible to recycle carbon dioxide, but most still think it cannot be made practical, either technically or economically,” says Ellen Stechel, the program manager for the Sandia team.

A liquid hydrocarbon fuel is significant as it fits our current gasoline and oil infrastructure. It can be easily transported via the pipeline or hauled to a gas station. And, it would work in ordinary petro-based engines.

Source: Popular Science

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About the Author

is a web developer, part-time blogger, and a full-time environmentalist. His crusade for all things eco started twenty years ago when he ditched his meat-and-potatoes upbringing for something more vegetarian-shaped. His passions include cooking, green tech, eco politics, and smart green design. And while he doesn't own a car anymore, he loves to write about those too. Jerry studied at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. During his time there he was a DJ at the campus station KCPR and he also wrote for the campus paper. Jerry currently resides in San Francisco, CA with his cat Lola. You can stalk him on Twitter @jerryjamesstone.



  • Rhawk187

    Problem solved. Shut up hippies.

  • Rhawk187

    Problem solved. Shut up hippies.

  • Jim

    Would be nice to see the prototype actually working. Yes, they have a nice solar toy, whoopieeeeeee!

    Why not use normal heat in a lab so it’s more controlled, then show the conversion on a bench. We already know solar heat happens, but making this cycle work is the big thing. Like after days does it wear out? What needs to be replaced?

    And why the complicated counter rotating rings? WTF? Why complicate matters more?

    Why use only the outer edges? USE THE WHOLE DISK of material, you are already spending lots of energy heating it, but then you only use part of it?

    Why not dip the lower part in a non reactive (to what you are doing) high temp liquid to cool it much faster and use the heat from that liquid (through an exchanger) to make steam and create power too?

  • Jim

    Would be nice to see the prototype actually working. Yes, they have a nice solar toy, whoopieeeeeee!

    Why not use normal heat in a lab so it’s more controlled, then show the conversion on a bench. We already know solar heat happens, but making this cycle work is the big thing. Like after days does it wear out? What needs to be replaced?

    And why the complicated counter rotating rings? WTF? Why complicate matters more?

    Why use only the outer edges? USE THE WHOLE DISK of material, you are already spending lots of energy heating it, but then you only use part of it?

    Why not dip the lower part in a non reactive (to what you are doing) high temp liquid to cool it much faster and use the heat from that liquid (through an exchanger) to make steam and create power too?

  • Hugo

    While I can see some advantage, I don’t really feel this is a step in the right direction…To be able to reduce the total emissions from power plants is good, but if you are going to use that carbon in another way…What’s te real advantage in terms of climate/pollution…To me,it seems more like an attempt at reducing the oil problem…Can’t they use the same technology to transform the carbon into something else?

  • Hugo

    While I can see some advantage, I don’t really feel this is a step in the right direction…To be able to reduce the total emissions from power plants is good, but if you are going to use that carbon in another way…What’s te real advantage in terms of climate/pollution…To me,it seems more like an attempt at reducing the oil problem…Can’t they use the same technology to transform the carbon into something else?

  • Ted

    Jim….Really? Are you a scientist? a physics PHD? anything close to anything that would make you understand this? Did you stay at a Holiday Inn last night or just fall down some stairs?

    jerk

  • Ted

    Jim….Really? Are you a scientist? a physics PHD? anything close to anything that would make you understand this? Did you stay at a Holiday Inn last night or just fall down some stairs?

    jerk

  • Awesome!

  • Awesome!

  • doug

    wouldn’t it be great if you could just capture the energy directly from the sun and use it to produce electricity. nah, i know, that’s just crazy talk.

  • doug

    wouldn’t it be great if you could just capture the energy directly from the sun and use it to produce electricity. nah, i know, that’s just crazy talk.

  • JJ

    I was quite interested in this until the moment the guy says that one of these dishes can produce only 2 gallons of syn fuel a day. Of course this is very early days but if it doesn’t get orders of magnitude better this is just clutching at straws.

    I see they are using the Suncatcher dish which if I recall from SES can produce upwards of 25KWe or power. For each 25KWhr of electricity, a Nissan Leaf could fully charge its battery and then drive for 100 miles. Assume a ICE Leaf gets 33mpg then 1 hour of Suncatcher gives us an equivalent 3 gallons or maybe 24 gallons of “electrical” fuel from 8 hours of sunlight. This rough math shows that it would be better to stick with electricity as the fuel of choice since it has far fewer losses.

    It doesn’t help that the Suncatcher is already quite expensive as far as electrical energy production goes, and needs to be an order of magnitude cheaper to compete against coal or nuclear so using to it to produce syn fuel is even worse.

    Perhaps if the synthesis could be done with lower grade heat, it should instead use the lost heat from a coal/gas plant where the CO2 is emitted both acting as a cogen solution to produce a useful product and as a CO2 sequester, a two fer one. Maybe even use heat from a Nuclear power source would make more sense since the energy density is so much higher but I suspect the math still won’t work. Sticking with the gas infrastructure argument is sticking with inefficiency.

  • JJ

    I was quite interested in this until the moment the guy says that one of these dishes can produce only 2 gallons of syn fuel a day. Of course this is very early days but if it doesn’t get orders of magnitude better this is just clutching at straws.

    I see they are using the Suncatcher dish which if I recall from SES can produce upwards of 25KWe or power. For each 25KWhr of electricity, a Nissan Leaf could fully charge its battery and then drive for 100 miles. Assume a ICE Leaf gets 33mpg then 1 hour of Suncatcher gives us an equivalent 3 gallons or maybe 24 gallons of “electrical” fuel from 8 hours of sunlight. This rough math shows that it would be better to stick with electricity as the fuel of choice since it has far fewer losses.

    It doesn’t help that the Suncatcher is already quite expensive as far as electrical energy production goes, and needs to be an order of magnitude cheaper to compete against coal or nuclear so using to it to produce syn fuel is even worse.

    Perhaps if the synthesis could be done with lower grade heat, it should instead use the lost heat from a coal/gas plant where the CO2 is emitted both acting as a cogen solution to produce a useful product and as a CO2 sequester, a two fer one. Maybe even use heat from a Nuclear power source would make more sense since the energy density is so much higher but I suspect the math still won’t work. Sticking with the gas infrastructure argument is sticking with inefficiency.

  • JJ

    It is even easier to figure out that this makes no sense from a capital point of view.

    A machine that costs well over $100K (see the SES Suncatcher story) to make a widget or product that has about $5 of value per day will never be economic. Even using the SES dish to make electricity isn’t very cost effective since it only makes maybe 25*8 KWhr /day at maybe 10c/KWhr or $20 worth of electricity a day.

    The math is very simple, the Stirling engine is at least 30% efficient at converting solar heat to electrical power and the grid and EV are each maybe 90% efficient, so the final EV uses about 24% of the sun power for motion which is pretty good..

    In the synfuel case, we have maybe 2% efficiency at converting light to fuel plus some transport losses (small) plus the ICE 30% efficiency in most cars. Even if the solar synthesis of fuel reached 100% efficiency, the final efficiency of the ICE would take it back below 30%, about the same as the Stirling->grid->EV path is now. Since solar synthesis will never reach 100%, it will always be orders less efficient than the electrical route.

    It is a no brainer, use the fewest most efficient transformation step to get from energy source to final use, electrical is already there.

    In the earlier post, I suggest using waste heat from coal burning along with the CO2 emitted. In retrospect it would simply be better to turn coal directly to synfuel, far more efficient and really coal is a concentrated solar energy fuel from eons ago. Not that I am a coal advocate at all!

  • JJ

    It is even easier to figure out that this makes no sense from a capital point of view.

    A machine that costs well over $100K (see the SES Suncatcher story) to make a widget or product that has about $5 of value per day will never be economic. Even using the SES dish to make electricity isn’t very cost effective since it only makes maybe 25*8 KWhr /day at maybe 10c/KWhr or $20 worth of electricity a day.

    The math is very simple, the Stirling engine is at least 30% efficient at converting solar heat to electrical power and the grid and EV are each maybe 90% efficient, so the final EV uses about 24% of the sun power for motion which is pretty good..

    In the synfuel case, we have maybe 2% efficiency at converting light to fuel plus some transport losses (small) plus the ICE 30% efficiency in most cars. Even if the solar synthesis of fuel reached 100% efficiency, the final efficiency of the ICE would take it back below 30%, about the same as the Stirling->grid->EV path is now. Since solar synthesis will never reach 100%, it will always be orders less efficient than the electrical route.

    It is a no brainer, use the fewest most efficient transformation step to get from energy source to final use, electrical is already there.

    In the earlier post, I suggest using waste heat from coal burning along with the CO2 emitted. In retrospect it would simply be better to turn coal directly to synfuel, far more efficient and really coal is a concentrated solar energy fuel from eons ago. Not that I am a coal advocate at all!

  • bo

    Rhawk, so you admit is was a problem? It’s about damn time. Hippy.

  • bo

    Rhawk, so you admit is was a problem? It’s about damn time. Hippy.

  • MichaelBryant

    anther advancement for syn fuel.

  • MichaelBryant

    anther advancement for syn fuel.

  • i all ways thought using electricity to make hydrogen to make electricity just seemed …how do u say… retarded

  • i all ways thought using electricity to make hydrogen to make electricity just seemed …how do u say… retarded

  • Just how long before a Big Oil company buys this out?

  • Just how long before a Big Oil company buys this out?

  • yeah but there is a huge loss of energy … you basically need 3 x the energy to store 13 as much that why its retarded

  • yeah but there is a huge loss of energy … you basically need 3 x the energy to store 13 as much that why its retarded

  • this is basically the mythbusters death ray.

  • this is basically the mythbusters death ray.

  • This would have been more impressive had this process not been perfected by early archea some 2 billion years ago.

  • This would have been more impressive had this process not been perfected by early archea some 2 billion years ago.

  • Where does the hydrogen come from? Those fuels contain hydrogen…. Sunlight and CO2 do not.

  • Where does the hydrogen come from? Those fuels contain hydrogen…. Sunlight and CO2 do not.

  • Sunlight and CO2! HOLY PLANTS DO THE SAME THING WHAT A COINCIDENCE! ! ! ! ! !

  • Sunlight and CO2! HOLY PLANTS DO THE SAME THING WHAT A COINCIDENCE! ! ! ! ! !

  • i all ways thought using electricity to make hydrogen to make electricity just seemed …how do u say… retarded

  • i all ways thought using electricity to make hydrogen to make electricity just seemed …how do u say… retarded

  • Where does the hydrogen come from? Those fuels contain hydrogen…. Sunlight and CO2 do not.

  • Where does the hydrogen come from? Those fuels contain hydrogen…. Sunlight and CO2 do not.

  • very skeptical,oxidizing metal is not going to convert a significant tonnage of CO2 in a year to counter pollution

  • very skeptical,oxidizing metal is not going to convert a significant tonnage of CO2 in a year to counter pollution

  • JJ

    @mrcommenter

    The iron is not oxidized to take ox from CO. The iron oxide is the catalyst with heat that drives the CO2 and water to reduce to CO and H that can then be further processed. The iron oxide isn’t depleted in the process.

    It would be quite silly to burn any metal as a way to get the CO2 to give back any oxygen since the metal itself already has been through an energy intense refining process.

  • JJ

    @mrcommenter

    The iron is not oxidized to take ox from CO. The iron oxide is the catalyst with heat that drives the CO2 and water to reduce to CO and H that can then be further processed. The iron oxide isn’t depleted in the process.

    It would be quite silly to burn any metal as a way to get the CO2 to give back any oxygen since the metal itself already has been through an energy intense refining process.

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