Due to their higher energy density and lower pollutants, fuel substitutes such as isobutanol are considered superior to other options like ethanol.
Carbon emissions have long been the bane of our rapidly developing world. And with the expansion of emerging economies researchers are anxiously reporting the steadily increasing growth of carbon pollutants. Alongside, novel methods to curb carbon emissions have surfaced. But until now, none had given thought to actually putting these noxious vapors to use. Until James Liao unveiled a revolutionary means to convert carbon dioxide into fuel for vehicles.
Liao, a UCLA Chancellor’s Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been pursuing the project for quite some time. In January 2008, Liao and his team announced that they had pinned down a potential replacement for car fuel. They had successfully developed a way in which E-coli bacteria could be genetically modified to absorb carbon dioxide and produce the fuel isobutanol, a substitute that can be used instead of gasoline.
This fuel-producing reaction is triggered by the bacteria’s exposure to sunlight through photosynthesis. Liao and his team are now seeking to substitute electricity as the energy source, a method which would reduce the large amounts of space required for the photosynthesis process. “Our proposed process will provide one of the most feasible and economical methods to convert electricity to liquid fuel in a scalable manner,” added Liao in a statement.
What is most attractive about Liao’s discovery is the idea of using a waste byproduct like carbon dioxide to produce fuel. Unlike oil or other alternative energy sources, the supply of carbon dioxide is abundant. If anything, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to grow further. In May this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that global carbon emissions will soar by 40% by 2035 if more stringent actions to curb them are not taken. The world in 2035 looks bleak, with energy use predicted to rise by 49% and the heaviest consumers expected to be developing nations like China and India.
In such a scenario, breakthroughs such as those developed by Liao will become increasingly important. Recognizing this, in June 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bestowed Liao, a native of Taiwan, with the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for his findings. Liao has licensed his technology to Gevo, a California based startup involved in biofuel technologies, which Liao himself co-founded. “Given that part of UCLA’s mission is to transfer technologies to the commercial sector to benefit the public, we are excited at the prospect that this UCLA-developed technology may play a key role in addressing climate change and energy independence,” says Earl Weinstein, assistant director of the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property.
Earlier this year, James Liao was awarded $4 million in grants by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy
(ARPA-E) for further research on his carbon to fuel conversion technology.
Gevo and UCLA are not alone in their excitement. Last year, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, debuted a successfully working prototype of a machine that uses solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into fuel. Researcher Rich Diver, who is the brains behind the device, said that recycling CO2 from heavy polluters such as industrial plants would be an ideal two-pronged approach to both curb emissions and combat the fear of running out of fossil fuels. “It’s a productive utilization of CO2 that you might capture from a coal plant, a brewery, and similar concentrated sources,” points out James Miller, a chemical engineer at Sandia.
Yet, as with most of these new technologies, there is a catch. Currently, carbon to fuel conversion itself consumes huge amounts of energy, while methods of extracting CO2 from the air need to be refined. What’s more, both of these processes are all still in their infancy and operating on a small scale. To put this in perspective, Stuart Haszeldine, a carbon capture expert at Edinburgh University notes that more than 200 million tons of carbon is disgorged in the U.K. alone every year. So, would these new technologies be able to scale up accordingly?
Liao’s answer is a resounding yes. According to Liao, his technology is “expected to enter mass production in five years at the soonest.” He hopes to scale up operations to the point where at least 500 million tons or 8.3% of the total carbon emissions in the U.S. could be expunged.
Using our waste and pollutants to create fuel? It’s not a dream anymore. Such Utopian visions appear to be within our grasp, if James Liao’s dream becomes a reality.