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Home > News > Recycling

Cambridge researchers turn CO2 and plastic waste into clean, sustainable fuels

Source:Adsale Plastics Network Date :2023-06-28 Editor :JK
Copyright: Original work. Please do not reprint.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge lately developed a solar-powered reactor that converts captured CO2 and plastic waste into sustainable fuels and other valuable chemical products. In tests, CO2 was converted into syngas, a key building block for sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles were converted into glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry.

 

Unlike earlier tests of their solar fuels technology however, the team took CO2 from real-world sources – such as industrial exhaust or the air itself. The researchers were able to capture and concentrate the CO2 and convert it into sustainable fuel.

 

Although improvements are needed before this technology can be used at an industrial scale, the results, reported in the journal Joule, represent another important step toward the production of clean fuels to power the economy, without the need for environmentally destructive oil and gas extraction.

 

For several years, Professor Erwin Reisner’s research group, based in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, has been developing sustainable, net-zero carbon fuels inspired by photosynthesis - the process by which plants convert sunlight into food - using artificial leaves. These artificial leaves convert CO2 and water into fuels using just the power of the sun.

 

To date, their solar-driven experiments have used pure, concentrated CO2 from a cylinder, but for the technology to be of practical use, it needs to be able to actively capture CO2 from industrial processes, or directly from the air. However, since CO2 is just one of many types of molecules in the air we breathe, making this technology selective enough to convert highly diluted CO2 is a huge technical challenge.


sustainable fuel

Researchers demonstrate how CO2 can be captured from industrial processes – or even directly from the air – and transformed into clean, sustainable fuels.


Carbon capture and utilization 

 

The researchers took their inspiration from carbon capture and storage (CCS), where CO2 is captured and then pumped and stored underground. “CCS is a technology that’s popular with the fossil fuel industry as a way to reduce carbon emissions while continuing oil and gas exploration,” stated Reisner.

 

“But if instead of carbon capture and storage, we had carbon capture and utilization, we could make something useful from CO2 instead of burying it underground, with unknown long-term consequences, and eliminate the use of fossil fuels.”

 

The researchers adapted their solar-driven technology so that it works with flue gas or directly from the air, converting CO2 and plastics into fuel and chemicals using only the power of the sun.

 

By bubbling air through the system containing an alkaline solution, the CO2 selectively gets trapped, and the other gases present in air, such as nitrogen and oxygen, harmlessly bubble out. This bubbling process allows the researchers to concentrate the CO2 from air in solution, making it easier to work with.

 

The integrated system contains a photocathode and an anode. The system has two compartments: on one side is captured CO2 solution that gets converted into syngas, a simple fuel. On the other plastics are converted into useful chemicals using only sunlight. 

 

“The plastic component is an important trick to this system,” explained co-first author Dr Motiar Rahaman. “Capturing and using CO2 from the air makes the chemistry more difficult. But, if we add plastic waste to the system, the plastic donates electrons to the CO2. The plastic breaks down to glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry, and the CO2 is converted into syngas, which is a simple fuel.”

 

The scientists are currently working on a bench-top demonstrator device with improved efficiency and practicality to highlight the benefits of coupling direct air capture with CO2 utilization as a path to a zero-carbon future.

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