Princeton Researchers Use Solar Panels to Convert Carbon Dioxide to Fuel

Liquid Light Carbon Dioxide to Fuel

Solar Panels to Convert Carbon Dioxide to Fuel ( Solar Thermal Magazine )- Research to curb global warming caused by rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, usually involves three areas: Developing alternative energy sources, capturing and storing greenhouse gases, and repurposing excess greenhouse gases. Drawing on two of these approaches, researchers in the laboratory of Andrew Bocarsly, a Princeton professor of chemistry, collaborated with researchers at start-up company Liquid Light Inc. of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, to devise an efficient method for harnessing sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into a potential alternative fuel known as formic acid. The study was published June 13 in the Journal of CO2 Utilization.

The transformation from carbon dioxide and water to formic acid was powered by a commercial solar panel provided by the energy company PSE&G that can be found atop electric poles across New Jersey. The process takes place inside an electrochemical cell, which consists of metal plates the size of rectangular lunch-boxes that enclose liquid-carrying channels.

To maximize the efficiency of the system, the amount of power produced by the solar panel must match the amount of power the electrochemical cell can handle, said Bocarsly. This optimization process is called impedance matching. By stacking three electrochemical cells together, the research team was able to reach almost 2 percent energy efficiency, which is twice the efficiency of natural photosynthesis. It is also the best energy efficiency reported to date using a man-made device.

A number of energy companies are interested in storing solar energy as formic acid in fuel cells. Additionally, formate salt—readily made from formic acid—is the preferred de-icing agent on airplane runways because it is less corrosive to planes and safer for the environment than chloride salts. With increased availability, formate salts could supplant more harmful salts in widespread use.

Using waste carbon dioxide and easily obtained machined parts, this approach offers a promising route to a renewable fuel, Bocarsly said.

This work was financially supported by Liquid Light, Inc., which was cofounded by Bocarsly, and the National Science Foundation under grant no. CHE-0911114.

Liquid Light develops and licenses process technology to make major chemicals from low-cost, globally-abundant carbon dioxide (CO2).  Liquid Light’s core technology is centered on low-energy catalytic electrochemistry to convert CO2 to multi-carbon chemicals. It is backed by more than 100 patents and applications, and extends to multiple chemicals with large existing markets, including ethylene glycol, propylene, isopropanol, methyl-methacrylate and acetic acid.

Source: Princeton University and Liquid Light

Image credit: Liquid Light


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  • Hasan says:

    how is formic acid used as energy source? if in batteries whats the efficiency and commercial viability of those batteries also would the CO2 stay as foric acid inside those batteries forever or would it be reversed afterwards shortly?

  • 2% efficiency is a joke

  • Mark Llorente says:

    2% conversion efficiency from a FREE energy source is pretty good. Solar power flux is rather high, so if you’re worried about cost efficiency, the real metrics you’d be worried about are the costs of the infrastructure. If you’re going to gripe about the practicality of it: 1) CO2 capture is not easy and is usually energy intensive. It’s a waste product that blows away into the atmosphere, after all. 2) Formic acid isn’t all that energy dense compared to similarly sized fuel molecules like methanol, but formic acid is a HUGE first step because chemical processes (also driven by light) can convert that to more energy dense fuels.

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