Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. But what about turning carbon dioxide back into fuel?
A Cornell University startup has reportedly developed a way, by adding sunlight to carbon dioxide to transform it into syngas or methanol. The fuel is said to be environmentally friendly and useful for transportation, energy, heating and cooking. Dimensional Energy is the name of the startup, working on a reverse combustion process, aka artificial photosynthesis.
Cornell officials say Dimensional Energy has joined a university business incubator, McGovern Family Center for Venture Development, to bring the idea to the commercial level. Company leaders hope to produce larger scale reactor prototypes and deploy a pilot with an already identified partner in 2020.
The CO2-to-fuel process happens in a photoreactor where the key ingredient is sunlight. “In industrial uses, we can capture carbon dioxide from commercial entities before it leaks into the atmosphere,” according to David Erickson, a mechanical engineering professor and co-founder and partner in the company. “We put it into our reactor, add hydrogen and sunlight. All of this goes into our machine and comes out as a useful fuel.”
Erickson adds that since the resulting methanol was formed from a process that removed carbon from the atmosphere, it’s neutral and “we can use it guilt free.”
Talk about breathing new life into the climate change fight. Carbon dioxide would be a feedstock rather than a planetary menace in this scenario.
Erickson and a founding partner in the company, Associate Professor Tobias Hanrath, helped formed Dimensional Energy in 2016, with initial support from a New York business incubator called NEXUS-NY. They’ve since received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Shell GameChanger program.
As noted in a 2017 project abstract on the NSF site:
The broader impact/commercial potential of this Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) project relates to the fact that the extraction and consumption of fossil carbon accounts for over 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.
While some mitigation approaches are fairly mature, like capturing CO2 for equestration or for enhanced oil recovery, they are very expensive in terms of both variable and capital costs and have little chance of ever providing a return on investment.
By not viewing fossil fuels and feedstocks through a circular economy lens, we estimate these companies miss an opportunity for approximately $50 billion per year in potential profit from hydrocarbons, including methanol, that could be made with waste CO2.
A video below explains the technology. It’s from a 2017 NASA design contest, in which the research team of Erickson and Hanrath won the $20,000 grand prize for “HI-LIGHT – Solar Thermal Chemical Reactor Technology for Converting CO2 to Hydrocarbons.”
By the way, Dimensional Energy Co-founder and Chief Executive Office Jason Salfi is considered a leader in the skateboarding industry for innovative design and a focus on sustainability, according to a Cornell bio. He co-founded Comet Skateboards in the late 1990s.