Turning global problems into solutions

Harnessing sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into cleaner  fuels

Nature makes it look so easy. Using sunlight, flowers and trees convert carbon dioxide and water into useful sugars and oxygen.

At UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC) in Vancouver, Director David Wilkinson is exploring how to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into fuels.

CERC is an interdisciplinary facility dedicated to improving existing energy technologies and developing new sustainable sources of energy. The centre supports more than 60 faculty and 200 graduate students whose research includes clean burning engines, fuel cells systems, process emission reductions and new energy sources such as hydrogen and biofuels.

“It’s one of the holy grails,” says Wilkinson, professor and Canada Research Chair in the Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “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.”

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.

Since CO2 can last up to 100 years in the atmosphere, the challenge is developing photocatalysts that can use solar radiation to break down CO2 efficiently and at practical conversion rates without using another energy source.

Over the past months, Wilkinson and his team have been working with photocatalysts that employ nanoscopic structures of titanium oxide mixed with copper and other materials for improved performance. “We’re looking at ways to improve how efficiently the photocatalyst works, its stability and sensitivity to light, and how best to incorporate it into a reactor,” explains Wilkinson.

“It’s conceivable that we could have a small pilot prototype within five years,” says Wilkinson, adding that CERC is one of only a few centres in the world tackling solar-carbon conversion, an emerging research area.

He notes that, “UBC is uniquely positioned given the scope of our sustainable clean energy research and our progress in such related fields as catalysis, fuel cell and electrosynthesis technology, and advanced electrolysis including solar splitting of water.”

The new technology would initially target industries where large quantities of CO2 are produced, such as power plants that use natural gas or coal. “Until recently there have been very few options to use this waste CO2 as a useful input to other processes, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere or burying it underground.”

For more information about UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre, visit www.cerc.ubc.ca

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 11 | Nov. 3, 2011

Clean energy researcher David Wilkinson is investigating solar fuels.

Clean energy researcher David Wilkinson is investigating solar fuels.

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