Valerie Clark
Nov 3, 2011

Artificial photosynthesis - theory or reality?

Clean fuel production generally involves extraction of energy from biomass, such as corn or algae, but what if we could produce clean fuel without the biomass?  After all, biomass is logistically challenging and costly to maintain.  Artificial photosynthesis – electroreduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) – has great potential, but in terms of energy, it is also costly.  Perhaps an electrolytic solution with a catalytic effect is the answer; it’s both energy- and cost-efficient, and the science behind it is elegantly simple. 


Thanks to the savvy of biological and chemical engineers at the University of Illinois and the innovative leadership of entrepreneurs at Dioxide Materials, a plausible method of fuel production via artificial synthesis has come to light.  They’ve developed an ionic liquid catalyst that effectively reduces the energy cost associated with converting emissions into fuel. 


Their research supports not only a reality in which fuel production is artificially synthesized, but also one in which a fuel source doesn’t compete with a food source.  The research was funded by the United States Department of Energy and the team has made great strides towards the possibility of clean fuel production from a man-made energy source. 


The theory behind artificial photosynthesis involves a chemical reduction reaction that can drive the conversion of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide and basically turn emissions into fuel; however, balancing the equation requires a substantial input of energy.  For this to be a profitable method the energy output must exceed the input, otherwise there is no profit.  That’s a pretty basic concept which resonates well with the business world and scientists alike. 


So, the challenge has been to find a less energy-intensive process that can reduce the energy cost and/or increase the energy content of the final product. 


Here’s the reality.  The US Department of Energy has invested billions of dollars into biomass research.  The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 called for 21 billion gallons of biofuels by the year 2022, and 2 billion gallons by 2012, so biofuel made from biomass isn’t going anywhere.  If artificial fuel synthesis becomes a profitable reality, it will likely coexist along side biofuel, and may be targeted for larger-scale uses at power plants or in the construction industries.  


While the idea of converting greenhouse gases into fuel is certainly innovative, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome.  The obvious advantage is a recycling approach to pollution that traps harmful chemicals in the energy cycle and reduces the exponential increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, but at what cost?  Will artificial fuel burn clean, like biofuel?  More research is needed to evaluate the scalability and speed of the chemical reaction, especially if artificial fuel is intended for large-scale, commercial use. 


As with any new discovery in science and technology, more questions are raised with each answer found.  From what I know about this industry, I would expect to hear a lot more about artificial fuel synthesis from the chemical and biological engineering industries.  The process will be refined and modified over the next 5 to 10 years, and then maybe we’ll see this theory become a reality at our neighborhood gas station. 



Journal Reference:

B. A. Rosen, A. Salehi-Khojin, M. R. Thorson, W. Zhu, D. T. Whipple, P. J. A. Kenis, R. I. Masel. Ionic Liquid-Mediated Selective Conversion of CO2 to CO at Low Overpotentials. Science, 2011; DOI:10.1126/science.1209786