David Wilkinson, executive director of the Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC) at UBC, is taking a cradle-to-cradle approach to tackling the problem of CO2 emissions – treating CO2 as a resource rather than a dangerous pollutant. His research centers upon finding ways to convert CO2 into fuels of the future. CO2 emissions from power plants combined with water can be converted to methane, methanol, formic acid and other fuels suitable for combustion or electric cells using known chemical processes. In the Gemini space missions, NASA used a similiar process to create potable water and methane from excess carbon dioxide in the cabin atmosphere. Wilkison faces two challenges. First, CO2 is a very stable molecule that can last centuries in the atmosphere. It requires a lot of energy to break it apart. Second, the concentrations in the atmosphere are far smaller than that existing in the Gemini cabin.
“Being able to convert the greenhouse gas CO2 into cleaner energy fuels on an industrial scale would not only help to offset the future shortage of fossil fuels but would help to offset CO2 emissions to reduce the risk of global warming.” says Wilkinson
The process requires capturing CO2, combining it with water, and then using the sun’s energy to trigger a photochemical reaction. With enough light, the photocatalyst transforms carbon dioxide into simple low-carbon fuels such as methane, methanol and others that can be used for combustion or in fuel cells for many different applications.