Creating fuel and plastic from CO2
French researchers, Victor Mougel and Marc Fontecave, have developed a system that transforms CO2 into fuel. Provided in energy by two solar panels, this artificial photosynthesis produces ethylene in the form of a gas.
This hydrocarbon is close to petroleum fuel and it’s largely used in the chemical industry to produce plastic. Total is interested and has already given the program finance for the next five years.
Trapping CO2 and transforming it into other substances is one of the solutions to stop the proliferation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. “It took millions of years of evolution for plants to transform CO2 into usable products for their growth, thanks to the energy of the sun”, explains Victor Mougel, Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and ex-researcher at the French College of Paris.
CO2 into ethylene
The system developed by Mr Mougel and his colleague, Marc Fontecave, is unlike any other. Contained in a small box, it is powered by two mini-solar panels. CO2 is passed through the system and transformed into a gas, which is majorly composed of ethylene.
This hydrocarbon is particularly useful and precious as it has a structure close to petroleum fuel. It is also the major element used for creating polyethene, one of the world’s most used plastics.
“Our goal was not to use any precious metals. Good surprise: our copper-based catalysis system is twice as effective as any other that existed before”, declared Professor Mougel enthusiastically. The team also decided to use perovskite solar panels that don’t use any silicon.
Better yield than plants
By comparing the available energy in ethylene to the solar flux that arrives on the solar panels, the French CO2 transformation system reaches a 2,3% yield. While this number might seem low, it is more than twice that of major terrestrial plants (1%) and more than cyanobacteria can manage (2%).
In reality, this chemical transformation is a real tour de force. Indeed, CO2 is a very stable element as it is the resulting product of the combustion of carbon-rich substances (wood, coal or fuel). By comparison, the first artificial photosynthesis systems only managed to produce CO.
At the source
Although this system might seem the great saviour of humanity, there is one major drawback. It only works with pure CO2. It can’t, therefore, trap the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. But, it might still have an important role to play.
This artificial photosynthesis could become part of major sources of CO2 emissions, such as coal or gas power plants or cement factories. It could be an intuitive way to store the electricity surplus from solar.
Total has already shown a keen interest in the project. The company gave the French College of Paris funding to continue research in the next five years. The goal is to arrive at pre-industrial production levels of ethylene and ethanol.