Article by: Marlene Cimons, Nexus Media,

Images by: Pixabay, Joule

Like many researchers, Phil De Luna finds inspiration in nature — in this case, the way plants use photosynthesis to make food from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight. He envisions a day when scientists will use water and renewable energy to transform carbon dioxide into products society can use, such as fuel, medicine, or feed for livestock. While scientists tend to talk about carbon capture and storage—one approach to fighting climate change — De Luna thinks the future instead will be about carbon capture and conversion.

“The world needs more solutions to climate change. If we can design and engineer technologies that use CO2 rather than fossil fuels to meet our chemical and fuel manufacture needs, then we can completely recycle carbon in a closed loop,” said De Luna, a doctoral candidate in materials science at the University of Toronto.

Humans are altering the climate by burning coal, oil and gas, releasing carbon that was once buried underground into the sky, increasing the volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Fuels made from captured carbon—instead of coal, oil, or gas — add no additional CO2 to the atmosphere when burned.

Once the technology that makes this happen becomes wide spread, “we can continue to meet the world’s energy demands using renewable energy, while also providing a source for the consumer goods and materials that we need every day,” De Luna added. “This technology has the potential to provide complete sustainability.”

Currently, carbon capture typically involves grabbing CO2 emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants, then storing them underground so they can’t enter the atmosphere and heat the planet. De Luna and his colleagues, including Oleksandr Bushnuyev, a University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow, are studying developing technologies that could make storage secondary — or even unnecessary. A studydescribing their work appears in the journal Joule.

“By using renewable energy to convert CO2 into a fuel, one can store that renewable energy, and then, when that fuel is burned, the CO2 can be captured again, closing the carbon cycle,” De Luna said. His team’s concept, which he described as being “at the cusp of becoming commercializable,” is a semi-finalist for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize, a $20 million competition to accelerate the development of technology that can capture CO2 and convert it to usable products.

While conversion technology is still in its infancy, researchers believe the coming decades will bring major advances. Within five to 10 years, for example, electro-catalysis — which stimulates chemical reactions through electricity — could reduce the cost of turning carbon dioxide into fuel and other products. Within 50 or more years, nanotechnology could drive conversion, according to the scientists.

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