Making Liquid Fuel from H2O, CO2 and Renewable Energy
Matthew Kanan, Stanford University

Fossil fuels have provided abundant energy to society for over a century, enabling the industrial and technological advances that we rely on today. Unfortunately, their large-scale use has boosted the atmospheric CO2 concentration to a level that is unprecedented in modern geological history. There are currently two approaches to halting the rise of CO2: displacing power plants that run on fossil fuels with renewable energy sources and capturing CO2 from large emitters for underground sequestration. A key question facing civilization is whether these two approaches will be enough to avoid reaching a CO2 level that precipitates large climatic and environmental changes. Despite remarkable progress in renewable energy technologies, the past 25 years have witnessed a 50% increase in annual CO2 emissions. This talk will discuss the prospect of a third approach to the CO2 problem: using renewable energy to recycle CO2 into fuel. The key scientific challenge to this goal is to develop catalysts that mediate the “reduction” of CO2 into carbon-containing fuel when supplied with electrons and protons. Such catalysts could be combined with “oxidation” catalysts that remove electrons and protons from H2O to form O2. Together, CO2 reduction catalysis and water oxidation catalysis constitute a combustion reaction run in reverse that can be powered by a renewable energy source such as a photovoltaic or wind turbine. If this process were efficient enough to be economically viable, CO2 could be the feedstock for sustainable fuel synthesis on a level commensurate with global demand.

Background Review Article:

Lewis NS, Nocera DG (2006) Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 103(43):15729–15735.

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