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Aberdeen Scientists aim to convert CO2 into hydrocarbons for energy use

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A research project at the University of Aberdeen aims to use a plasma electrolyser to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons for energy use, in what is being called a “world first”.

The Electrocatalysis in non-thermal plasma for energy storage project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), could enable the use of renewable energy for the efficient conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbons. A voltage would be applied between two electrodes in a weakly ionised gas, which would result in the reduction of CO2 and the oxidation of hydrogen.

It is one of ten projects announced today by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), aiming to support ideas and innovations for new materials, devices, fuels and technologies that will help the UK achieve its’ Net Zero ambitions. 

The other projects, each receiving a £250,000 grant, include:

  • Decarbonising nitrogen fixation for sustainable net-zero agriculture – University of Aberdeen

A new method of fixing nitrogen (the combination of elements such as ammonia and nitrates to produce essential products such as fertilisers), which would require only air, water and electricity, thus making its environmental impact considerably lower than conventional approaches.

  • Sustainable hydrogen production from seawater electrolysis – Loughborough University

An investigation into whether sea water could be used to store clean energy, by using renewable energy to split seawater into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Said gas could then be stored in fuel cells, with drinking water the only by-product.

  • Carbon negative chemicals synthesis directly from the air – University of Surrey

‘Pulling’ essential chemicals such as nitrogen or carbon directly from the air through the combination of direct air capture and catalysis. This process could allow fuels, fertilisers and consumer products to be created in an environmentally friendly manner, including negative emission methanol as a replacement for oil.

  • Enabling green ammonia as future transport fuel – Brunel University London

The development of a new type of liquid ammonia, which when blended with hydrogen, can be used in existing combustion engines, improving performance and possibly leading to a “100% reduction in CO2 emissions across the shipping, long haul transport and power generation sectors.

  • Transformative recovery of low-grade waste heat using ionic thermoelectrics – Heriot-Watt University

Electronic thermoelectrics use semiconductors to convert waste heat into electricity – an established technology, used by NASA to power the Mars rovers. The purpose of this project is to develop new power generation devices exploiting ions & atoms with electric charges, that could be used to increase sustainability and reduce carbon emissions.

Novel rechargeable hybrid redox flow battery based on particle-stabilised emulsions and hydrogen (H2) carriers – Cardiff University

Looking at the development of alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, which don’t involve the use of unsustainable elements such as lithium and cobalt.

Professor Angel Cuesta Ciscar leading the CO2 to hydrocarbons project

Professor Angel Cuesta Ciscar (pictured left), leading the CO2 to hydrocarbons project at the University of Aberdeen said:

“The energy transition requires technologies for efficient energy storage and conversion or to enable the decarbonisation of industrial processes, and this is where electrochemical processes can play a crucial role.

“But while these processes are inherently energy efficient, they’re often still not efficient enough to overcome cost barriers.

“There is a potential solution to this, where a reaction would be induced applying a voltage between two electrodes in a weakly ionised gas, resulting in the reduction of CO2 and the oxidation of hydrogen.

“This combination of plasma-catalysis and electrocatalysis has the potential to enable efficient conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbons driven by renewable electricity, thereby contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases and to a fairer and more sustainable transition to a net zero.”

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said:

“The projects announced today offer a variety of radical approaches to achieving a sustainable, cost-effective and fair transition to net zero and net negative greenhouse gas emissions.

“Harnessing and building on the latest developments in chemical engineering, materials science and chemistry, these ideas could help to halt the climate crisis and deliver sustainable, long-term growth.”

To see the full list of projects are available to view on the UKRI’s website.

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