Cambridge researchers make fuel from CO2 and plastic


Cambridge – Cambridge University chemists have invented a solar-powered reactor. This separates carbon dioxide from the air to produce sustainable liquid fuels and breaks down plastic into industrial materials.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have extracted sustainable energy from the air. In their paper published in the journal Joule, the researchers report they built a solar-powered reactor that extracts carbon dioxide from the air and industrial exhaust to produce syngas, a component of renewable liquid fuels. And the reactor breaks down plastics to produce glycolic acid, an ingredient in cosmetics and other products.

Conventional syngas is a greenhouse gas. The reactor, on the other hand, would deplete carbon already in the atmosphere, reducing the need for drilling, mining, and other carbon-intensive processes that contribute significantly to climate change.

“We’re not just interested in decarbonization, we’re interested in de-fossilization – we need to eliminate fossil fuels to create a true circular economy,” Erwin Reisner, a chemistry professor at Cambridge University and one of the study’s authors, was quoted as saying in a media release. “In the medium term, this technology could help reduce carbon emissions by capturing it from industry and turning it into something useful, but ultimately we need to take fossil fuels out of the equation altogether and capture CO2 from the air.”

The fossil fuel industry has inspired Reisner and his colleagues to find a use for carbon that the industry can capture and store as an alternative to a faster transition to solar, wind and other clean energy sources. The new reactor would create a “carbon capture and utilization” process that recycles carbon.

“We could make something useful out of CO2 – instead of burying it underground, with unknown long-term consequences – and eliminate the need to use fossil fuels,” Reisner continued.

The reactor filters air through alkaline solutions and captures the carbon while releasing nitrogen, oxygen and other gases. Adding plastic makes the process more efficient, breaking down the plastic into an industrial product. ce/jd