Sandia's Next Fuel Source: Thin Air

solararrayA research team from Sandia National Laboratories is trying to reverse the combustion process and turn carbon dioxide into liquid fuel.

The process works something like this: concentrated solar power from a giant solar furnace is used to superheat a set of catalytic cobalt ferrite rings that, once activated, literally rip carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules apart. As a result, CO2 is transformed into carbon monoxide, which can be converted into methanol, jet fuel, or even gasoline.

Sounds a little too good to be true, but researchers say it works and claim a prototype facility will be completed by April.

The idea of recycling carbon dioxide is not new, but has generally been considered too difficult and expensive to be worth the effort. But with oil prices exceeding $100 per barrel and concerns about global warming mounting, researchers are increasingly motivated to investigate carbon recycling. Los Alamos Renewable Energy, for example, has developed a method of using CO2 to generate electricity and fuel.

Splitting CO2 makes a little more sense once you understand that the original intention was to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for use in the proverbial hydrogen economy. The concept of recycling CO2 has a nice ring to it too, especially if the technology is combined with a coal power plant. CO2 from the plant’s exhaust gases could be captured, reduced to carbon monoxide, and then turned into liquid fuel.

On the other hand, this sounds like a big waste of solar energy when so many other options are available. Don’t expect to see CO2-to-fuel centers any time soon, either:

“This invention, though probably a good 15 to 20 years away from being on the market, holds a real promise of being able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while preserving options to keep using fuels we know and love,” she says. “Recycling carbon dioxide into fuels provides an attractive alternative to burying it.”

Yeah, you got that right.

For more information:

CSM (01/04/08): Scientists Use Sunlight to Make Fuel From CO2

SNL (12/05/07): Sandia’s Sunshine to Petrol project seeks fuel from thin air

Photo Credit: Sandia National Laboratories



In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.