Turning CO₂ into Ethanol: Researchers Light the Way for Sustainable Energy Production

Process Uses Solar Energy to Reduce Carbon Dioxide in the Environment, Produce Fuel

February 26, 2019


Illinois Tech researchers are pioneering a new way to turn carbon dioxide into useful chemicals.

Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Mohammad Asadi and his team of students have devised a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide in a continuous electrochemical process using an inexpensive catalyst and electrolyte. Carbon monoxide then can be mixed with hydrogen to produce synthesis gas, the main raw chemical used to make fuels such as methanol and ethanol.

The entire process of turning the carbon dioxide into a useable fuel is powered by renewable solar energy.

“Global energy demand is increasing every year,” Asadi says. “To keep up with this energy demand we would need to consume much more fossil fuel. As we use more fossil fuel, we produce more carbon dioxide—there are problems with that, climate change and ocean acidification. We as scientists need to find sustainable global alternatives to fossil fuel.”

Asadi and his students study a solar cell
Asadi and his students study a solar cell in the research lab.

Asadi and his students recently published their findings in Advanced Energy Materials. The solar-to-fuel and catalytic conversion efficiencies for the process are 23 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Previously, a maximum efficiency of approximately 15 percent was reported using a different catalyst.

“I believe this is the highest solar-to-fuel efficiency for the carbon dioxide reduction reaction reported so far,” Asadi says. “This process would be a great alternative to fossil fuel because we are recycling the carbon dioxide to something useful, and using solar power to take the carbon dioxide out of the environment.”

Moving forward, Asadi and his team hope to make their research model scalable for large solar-energy harvesting operations and to further increase the solar-to-fuel efficiency of the reaction.

Asadi’s research is funded by Illinois Tech’s Wanger Institute for Sustainable Energy Research.

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