The Single Element that Could Turn Carbon Dioxide Into Clean Energy

Industrial Steam Towers

By Maura Forrest

January 14, 2016

A team of scientists has created a new material that could turn carbon-dioxide emissions into a clean energy source.

The material is made of cobalt and is microscopically thin – in fact, it’s just four atoms thick. Carbon dioxide reacts with it to produce formate, a clean-burning fuel.

“This represents a fundamental scientific breakthrough,” Karthish Manthiram, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, told Popular Mechanics. Manthiram was not involved in the study, which was published last week in the journal Nature.

“Certainly it will be a years-long process before this is worked into a successful, commercial device. But at this stage of development, by all conceivable metrics, this reaction looks very positive.”

The process is called electroreduction. It works when the cobalt material is pulsed with an electric current, which makes it react with the carbon dioxide molecules running through it. During the reaction, a hydrogen atom attaches to the carbon atom in a CO2 molecule, turning it into CHOO-, which is formate.

If the process were commercially developed, it could be used to recycle carbon dioxide from existing power plants and to turn it into a secondary power source. That could help reduce the 36 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide currently released into the Earth’s atmosphere each year.

This isn’t the first attempt to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. Various projects exist to convert carbon dioxide to hydrocarbon fuels using energy from the sun. A company in Iceland is also using geothermal energy to turn carbon dioxide into methanol.

And Canadian company Carbon Engineering has plans to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and convert it to diesel fuel. It has a demonstration model in Squamish, B.C. that opened in October 2015.

But many of these technologies are very expensive, and have trouble attracting the investment needed to become commercially viable. It remains to be seen whether this new method – using cobalt – will break the mould.