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Startup Turns CO2 Into Fuel | Autopia from Wired.com

Researchers developing alternatives to fossil fuels are working with everything from algae to babassu oil to corn, but a California company says it can recycle carbon dioxide into fuel.

Carbon Sciences claims it has developed a way of using the CO2 emitted during the combustion of coal, oil and other hydrocarbons to create transportation fuels like gasoline and jet fuel. Should Carbon Sciences — or any of the other firms working on similar projects — accomplish this on a large scale, it could bring a reduction in CO2 emissions as well as an abundant supply of renewable fuel.

“We are very excited about our novel process to transform CO2 into fuel,” says company CEO Derek McLeish. “Based on our research to date, we believe that we will be able to demonstrate our technology within the next several months with a prototype that can convert a stream of CO2 into an immediately flammable liquid fuel.”

Fossil fuels are comprised of chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms called, appropriately, hydrocarbons. The more carbon atoms in the chain, the greater its energy content. Gasoline, for example, has seven to 10 carbon atoms, while jet fuel has 10 to 16. When those hydrocarbons are burned, they release carbon dioxide. Theoretically, the carbon dioxide could be split and its carbon atoms used to make more hydrocarbons. But CO2 is very stable and breaking it up requires so much heat and pressure that it has not been economically viable. Carbon Sciences says it has solved that problem. “We’re very excited by what we’ve seen in the lab,” McLeish told CNN. “We’ve had some promising results.”

The company says its “C02-to-Fuel” technology uses CO2 to create ethane, propane and methane, three run-of-the mill hydrocarbons used to make high-grade gasoline and other fuels. The key to the process is biocatalysis, a process where natural catalysts are used to perform chemical reactions. Biocatalysis is a more energy efficient and cost-effective way to break down CO2, making the possibility of a large-scale ramp up economically feasible.

The approach uses a low energy biocatalytic hydrolysis process that splits water molecules into hydrogen atoms and hydroxide ions, says Dr. Naveed Aslam, the company’s chief technology officer and inventor of the process. The hydrogen is used to create hydrocarbons, while the free electrons in the hydroxide are used to fuel the biocatalytic process, he says. The process “is based on natural organic chemistry processes that occur in all living organisms where carbon atoms, extracted from CO2, and hydrogen atoms extracted from H2O, are combined to create hydrocarbon molecules using biocatalysts and small amounts of energy.”

As for collecting the CO2, Carbon Sciences won’t just erect a big filter in the sky and hope for the best. The idea is to set up shop alongside oil refineries and and coal plants and capture the CO2 such facilities generate.

Carbon Sciences isn’t the only outfit seeking viable ways to recycle carbon dioxide. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratory have developed a way to use sunlight to convert CO2 into fuel. Newcastle University researchers can use CO2 to create chemical compounds called cyclic carbonates. The compounds are used in many solvents and also could be used as an additive to make gasoline burn more efficiently.

The potential benefits of this technology should not be understated. Not only would it capture greenhouse gases otherwise released into the atmosphere, but it would create a renewable source of fuel. “This is about closing the cycle,” Ellen Stechel, manager of Sandia’s Fuels and Energy Transitions department, told us earlier this year as she discussed the lab’s Sunlight to Petrol project. “Right now our fossil fuels are emitting CO2. This would help us manage and reduce our emissions and put us on the path to a carbon-neutral energy system.”

Michael North, a professor of organic chemistry at Newcastle University, notes that renewable sources of hydrocarbons would benefit much more than the transportation sector. “People don’t seem to realize that ten percent of everything that comes out of an oil well doesn’t go to the fuel industry — it drives the chemical industry,” he tells CNN. “Not only are we facing a fuel crisis, but the entire chemical industry is likely to cease to exist. So we desperately need to find ways of making chemical materials out of CO2.”