Producing clean energy from thin air? Yes, it is possible
An EU-funded research team has developed an efficient process to produce energy from CO2 - an innovation that could help Europe make the switch to a more sustainable, competitive economy.
© Vectorvstocker #117484300, source:stock.adobe.com 2020
Not only are fossil fuels extremely polluting to use but they are also a finite resource. The pressure is on to find clean, safe alternatives for the production of energy that are also sustainable over time. Europe is still very dependent on the import of fossil fuels with 73 % of our energy needs being met in this way. At the same time, there is great concern over the amount of CO2 produced by industrial processes and its effect on our environment.
The EU-funded WILLPOWER project set out to address all of these issues with one ground-breaking concept to use CO2 as a raw material with which to produce energy through a chemical process that would result in the production of methanol.
Inspired by the concept of the methanol economy put forward by the Nobel Prize winner Georges Olah, the WILLPOWER team set out to demonstrate that CO2 could be harnessed as a resource to provide a clean and safe source of energy for the future.
Our motivation was to change societys thinking about what is perceived as the CO2 problem, says project coordinator Antonio Martinez of Gensoric in Germany. If CO2 is seen as a resource to be used and recycled, in line with the idea of a circular economy, then we can solve many of the energy challenges that we are facing.
A revolution in energy provision
The project looked to nature for its inspiration. By analysing the way in which alcohol is processed in the human body, producing CO2 and water as a by product, the team considered whether by reversing the series of enzymatic chemical reactions occurring they could produce alcohol in this case, methanol from CO2 and water.
Its big innovation was the design of an intelligent electrode and custom enzymes which together are able, in a reactor chamber, to produce the right sequence of chemical reactions to transform CO2 and water into methanol. Methanol burns clean, is safe to use and versatile in its possible applications. Its potential as a source of energy for the future is enormous.
An obvious first application of the process we have developed is in home heating systems, says Martinez. In this area, we will work with existing providers of heating and cooling systems in Europe who can also provide the installation, maintenance and customer support necessary in this sector.
The project is also in negotiations with the wind turbine industry, where excess energy produced during high winds could be harnessed to produce methanol for storage and later use. This allows them to use energy that cannot be fed into the grid and was previously lost. In the automobile sector, adaptation of the process could lead to a clean method of propulsion, not reliant on batteries which pose their own environmental issues, and safer than hydrogen.
Technically speaking we have demonstrated that the system works, that it produces methanol and that it is completely safe to run, says Martinez. Now we are working with our partners to make sure that the full potential of this breakthrough is used to ensure a cleaner, safer and more self-sufficient energy sector for Europe in the future.