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NewCO2Fuels Uses Sunlight To Make New Fuels From Old Emissions

Tina Casey's picture /
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  • Jan 26, 2014 12:00 am GMT

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The name pretty much says it all: the Israeli company NewCO2Fuels has developed a solar powered carbon capture process that converts carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen, which are reclaimed and processed into fuels. The basic concept is well proven, so the real question now is, can the products resulting from carbon capture and recycling compete in commercial markets with fossil-based products.

Since NewCO2Fuels has just completed the first phase of tests for the new system, now is a good time to check in and see how they’re doing.

NewCO2Fuels converts waste gas to fuel

Carbon dioxide conversion courtesy of NewCO2Fuels


We had a chance to meet up with NewCO2Fuels during a technology tour of Israel sponsored by the organization Kinetis, but other than that the  company has been flying under our radar (as has its parent company, Australia’s Greenearth Energy Limited), so let’s recap a bit.

NewCO2Fuels was founded in 2011 with the goal of developing a cost-effective CO2-to-fuel reactor, made so partly by the use of solar thermal energy to power the process. The system also integrates a process for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Another fuel source for powering the system is industrial waste heat, which expands the field of potential sites beyond solar-friendly locations.

Also contributing to the cost-effectiveness of the new system is the use of components and materials that can be manufactured with existing processes.

The technology is based on eight years worth of research at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, resulting in the successful demonstration that CO2 can be dissociated into carbon monoxide and oxygen under high temperatures, as part of an integrated process leading to fuel production.

The Weismann Institute is also responsible for the solar technology used in the process, which enables the creation of a stable source of heat up to 1200 degrees centigrade.

As for GreenEarth Energy, the company is best known for its geothermal ventures but it has been branching out into other renewable energy technologies.

So Far, So Good on CO2-to-Fuel

The Stage 1 test simulated industrial waste heat sources. Compared to a 2010 laboratory demonstration, the dissociation rate of the system was increased by a factor of 200 and the cost was reduced by a factor of 34.

Based on the success of Stage 1, Greenearth Energy Managing Director Samuel Marks has this to say about the prospects for commercial development:

This is an extremely exciting step towards our final goal of not only proving the science behind the CO2 disassociation process at scale, but also its financial viability. This now proven concept has the potential to create, quite literally, a paradigm shift in the way society views and deals with our global CO2 challenges.

That sounds pretty good but we’re more interested in the Stage 2 test, which is already under way and is expected to be completed in February.

In this round of testing, NewCo2Fuels expects another significant increase in the dissociation rate, while powering the system with solar thermal energy.

Carbon Capture Roundup

Some time in the sparkling green future, power generation and other industrial processes will be totally or nearly free of greenhouse gas emissions related to fossil fuels (see also the West Virginia chemical spill for other ripple effects), but until then emissions capture technologies will play a significant role in steering the global economy off a path toward catastrophic global warming.

We’ve also been following a New Zealand company called LanzaTech, which started off with a waste gas-to-ethanol process and moved into waste gas-to-plastics.

If you’re wondering if the US is just sitting there twiddling its thumbs while all this has been going on, actually there has been some progress (we mean progress aside from simple carbon capture and sequestration, which we are not particularly fans of to say the least).

LanzaTech, for example, just won $4 million from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E cutting edge technology funding agency, to adapt its bioreactor-based emissions capture system into a modular system that could be transported to remote locations including coal mines, gas and oil fields, and landfills.

Another technology we’ve been following is the “Pepto-Bismol” process under development at the University of Delaware. It involves bismuth, the relatively common substance from which the popular over-the-counter medication derives its name, as a low cost electrocatalyst for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

Looking back a step, under the 2009 Recovery Act the Department of Energy got $1.4 billion to distribute for new carbon capture projects from industrial sources, some of which went to a cluster of 12 innovative “beneficial reuse” carbon capture projects.

Aside from capturing and converting carbon dioxide into fuels, the projects included using carbon emissions to grow algae for fuel.

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Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jan 26, 2014

Hard to evaluate what’s reported here.  Not enough technical information.  Much of what *is* reported is confusing.

All approaches to making synthetic hydrocarbons / carbohydrates from CO2 face the same fundamental issue: supplying the energy to “upgrade” the carbon from its low energy state in CO2 to a much higher energy state in the synthetic hydrocarbon or carbohydrate.  There are lots of ways to go about it.  Plants use the energy in photons of sunlight, but not very efficiently.  Lots of academic research into emulating that approach via “artificial leaves” that might prove more efficient, but the best of those efforts still have a long way to go. The work reported here, in any case, does not appear to fit that category.

The “brute force” approach is electrolysis to split water into H2 and O2 streams, and then use some of the H2 to strip an oxygen from CO2.  That yields carbon monoxide and water vapor.  Condense out the water vapor, add more H2, and you have high grade synthesis gas.  From there you’re off to the races for whatever carbon compound you care to synthesize.  Methanol is the easiest, and the George Olah renewable methanol plant in Iceland does precisely that.  Thanks to natural sources of concentrated CO2 and cheap electricity, the synthetic methanol they produce is competitive with what is produced industrially from natural gas. Both are on the order of $1.00 per gallon.  The only question in my mind is why aren’t more investors flocking to that approach?

What’s really confusing to me about the work reported here is the simultaneous mention of dissociation of CO2 at 1200C, utilization of waste heat, and claims of a “factor of 200” gain in the dissociation rate and a “factor of 34” in the cost.  Meaningliess gobbledegook in the absence of one hellofa lot more explanation. 

There are certainly low temperature processes where a good catalyst can easily deliver a factor of 200 gain in reaction rate.  That has enormous implications for the economic viability of the reactions in question.  Trouble is, the strongly endothermic dissociation of CO2 into CO and O2 wouldn’t be one of them. 

Basic thermodynamics says that catalysts can affect reaction rates (kinetics), but not the equilibrium concentrations of reactants.  At temperatures where a good catalyst would be useful for boosting the reaction rate, the equilibrium concentration of O2 would be down in the parts per billion or trillion.  Way to low to be useful.  But at temperatures where the equilibrium concentration of O2 is high enough to be interesting — 1200C qualifies — the reaction rate is so high that no catalyst is needed.  What’s needed is a robust ceramic oxygen transport membrane for separating out the O2.  It’s very hard to find materials that will serve for oxygen transport while standing up to a 1200C environment for any length of time.

I’ll withhold judgement until I learn more, but if I were to render a verdict on the basis of only what’s reported here, it would be that the folks at NewCO2Fuels are blowing smoke in our eyes.


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jan 26, 2014

Both the article and your comment reflect the difficulty translating the complex into the simple. Tina has written about various artificial nanomaterials, too.

Perhaps two issues stand out for me.

First, every photochemical conversion is a quantum mechanical process. Thermodynamics is only relevant to plug some measured values into a contrived theory with contrived partial derivatives. Simply, if there are photons, something chemical gets excited, or the photons leave for outer space.

The trick is to excite the chemical you want to excite, then do something with it. This is why photosynthesis has so many cell structures needed. The plant is always building the chemical factory, as well as processing reactant and product. I think this is the larger message Tina conveys through related “new materials” articles. Amazing how efficiently and precisely a plant fabricates factory machinery. I don’t know if humans can replicate such complexity for industry.

Secondly, CO2 is a big clumsy molecule to work with. I would be more interested in the H2O photodissociation. The proton is a hellofa underappreciated species.

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