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Earth Science

Solar-Powered Electrochemical Cell Used To Produce Formic Acid From CO2 133

Posted by samzenpus
from the give-me-your-carbon dept.
Zothecula writes Rising atmospheric CO2 levels can generally be tackled in three ways: developing alternative energy sources with lower emissions; carbon capture and storage (CCS); and capturing carbon and repurposing it. Researchers at Princeton University are claiming to have developed a technique that ticks two of these three boxes by using solar power to convert CO2 into formic acid. With power from a commercially available solar panel provided by utility company Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G), researchers in the laboratory of Princeton professor of chemistry Andrew Bocarsly, working with researchers at New Jersey-based start-up Liquid Light Inc., converted CO2 and water to formic acid (HCOOH) in an electrochemical cell.
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Solar-Powered Electrochemical Cell Used To Produce Formic Acid From CO2

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  • Efficiency (Score:3, Informative)

    by itzly (3699663) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @02:37AM (#47374379)
    Claimed efficiency is only 2%, using PV panels. It would make more sense to just use the PV panels to replace coal fired plants for generating electricity.
    • Claimed efficiency is only 2%, using PV panels. It would make more sense to just use the PV panels to replace coal fired plants for generating electricity.

      The point is, those solar lights at the dollar store? Yea... Make millions of them, throw them out in the desert, viola, carbon sink. You need to do something more with it beyond the acid, but this is the sort of idea we need to reduce already emitted CO2 after we've stopped creating all the extra.

      • The point is, those solar lights at the dollar store? Yea... Make millions of them, throw them out in the desert, viola, carbon sink. You need to do something more with it beyond the acid, but this is the sort of idea we need to reduce already emitted CO2 after we've stopped creating all the extra.

        And how much greenhouse gas are you going to add to the atmosphere when you make 'millions' of those 'solar lights'? That manufacturing process had better have a very small carbon footprint if you're going to come out ahead with only a 2% conversion efficiency...

      • Re:Efficiency (Score:4, Informative)

        by Idarubicin (579475) <allsquiet@hotmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Thursday July 03, 2014 @08:34AM (#47375553) Journal

        The point is, those solar lights at the dollar store? Yea... Make millions of them, throw them out in the desert, viola, carbon sink. You need to do something more with it beyond the acid, but this is the sort of idea we need to reduce already emitted CO2 after we've stopped creating all the extra.

        Even if we ignore the carbon (and other toxic) footprint of creating and strewing millions of semiconductor devices across the desert, I really think you need to think about what happens to the formic acid. Left to its own devices, formic acid slowly and spontaneously decomposes to water and...carbon monoxide. Which is unpleasant enough by itself (and a greenhouse gas in its own right), but which in turn is slowly oxidized in the atmosphere right back to...carbon dioxide.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Solar doesn't work at night, but if you can store the solar energy as formic acid, you can burn the formic acid at night, to get a nice 24-hour baseload power source. Unfortunately, at 2%, it's worse than just storing it in lead/sulfate batteries.

      • by itzly (3699663)
        We also need much more power during the day, so until you've replaced all daytime peak load with solar (or other low-CO2 source) there's not much need for storage. However, if you wanted storage, a good idea would be to make a smart grid + electric vehicles. The vehicles would automatically choose to charge when power is cheap, or discharge into the grid when power is expensive and the battery is full.
    • Re:Efficiency (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ultranova (717540) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @04:02AM (#47374553)

      Claimed efficiency is only 2%, using PV panels. It would make more sense to just use the PV panels to replace coal fired plants for generating electricity.

      Suppose, however, that you could alter the chemistry to get oil? Even at 2% efficiency, we'd be looking at an infinite, carbon-neutral, enviromentally nondestructive alternative to oil shales and tar sands.

      • by itzly (3699663)
        It would be cheaper to use electric vehicles and PV panels.
      • by Ihlosi (895663)
        Suppose, however, that you could alter the chemistry to get oil?

        Electrically-powered synthesis of methane from H2O and CO2 already exists, and the process of forming longer hydrocarbons from methane do, too.

        It's just a bit too expensive right now (or rather, oil and coal are still too cheap).

        • by ShakaUVM (157947)

          > Electrically-powered synthesis of methane from H2O and CO2 already exists, and the process of forming longer hydrocarbons from methane do, too.

          Yep. I think we ought to focus more of our research dollars on making this cheaper.

          If we start having more solar/wind than we know what to do with, using excess capacity to build up hydrocarbons is theoretically a great way to store the energy that would play nicely with our existing infrastructure, and would suck carbon out out of the atmosphere (though it'd ge

      • http://hardware.slashdot.org/s... [slashdot.org] "New Scientist reports that, faced with global warming and potential oil shortages, the US Navy is experimenting with making jet fuel from seawater by processing seawater into unsaturated short-chain hydrocarbons that with further refining could be made into kerosene-based jet fuel.

        More here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.... [discovermagazine.com]
    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Coal is baseload solar is not a replacement for baseload. The only good renewable replacement for baseload is hydro "the original baseload source of power". Wind is a marginal replacement for baseload but you really need large natural gas peaking plants to back up wind.

      • by itzly (3699663)
        Solar is not a 100% replacement for base load, but in a country like the USA, there are plenty of areas with 90% sunny days. With a good interconnected grid, you can get even closer to 100%. The remainder can be provided by a peak load plant or by storage. In combination with a weather forecast that can give you a decent head start on when to power up the peak power generators, that should be enough to cover most needs.
      • by Gr8Apes (679165)

        Coal is baseload solar is not a replacement for baseload. The only good renewable replacement for baseload is hydro "the original baseload source of power". Wind is a marginal replacement for baseload but you really need large natural gas peaking plants to back up wind.

        That's a false premise. You can build large cisterns that store excess energy by pumping in water, then using that during peak periods to meet demand. It's 100% solar. These could be built on the coast or even slightly in the sea, so there's no shortage of water until we run out of sea water. It also serves to level demand, since all excess demand can always go to the cisterns, even if they're full, since they'd just overflow and form a nice waterfall or similar water feature. The same could be used to stor

  • so theoretically, we can develop a process to turn harmful emissions (or any emissions) into the same stuff that goes into batteries, which we can use for power?

    honestly mind blowing! if I'm reading this right this is cool

    • by itzly (3699663)
      Not all harmful emissions, just CO2. And you'd need a big area of solar panels to negate the CO2 production of a single car.
  • by kolbe (320366) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @02:44AM (#47374397) Homepage

    Why would you want to convert Carbon Dioxide into Carbon Monoxide?

    If not used immediately, Formic acid decomposes into carbon monoxide and water when exposed to air and heat. I wouldn't exactly call this a "game changer" unless the target of it all is to give everyone A) a lot of toilet bowl cleaner for cheap or B) a silent death.

    • by JPyObjC Dude (772176) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @03:23AM (#47374473)

      Formic acid can be stored and used in a fuel cell to have a very good solar storage fuel. No need to worry about CO if kept within this fuel cycle.

      Related Abstract: http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content... [rsc.org]

      • Formic acid can be stored and used in a fuel cell to have a very good solar storage fuel. No need to worry about CO if kept within this fuel cycle.

        Related Abstract: http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content... [rsc.org]

        And what is the byproduct of that fuel cell? No, let me guess... a potent greenhouse gas?

        I agree that this could be a useful fuel cell if the energy density is high enough, but the net CO2 change in atmosphere is 0. All the CO2 that came out, goes back in.

        • Agreed, if your goal is to remove CO2, then using a fuel cell by itself is not a helpful fuel cycle. However, the Fuel Cell based cycle is very promising and can help to improve the viability of remove solar farms where transmission loss is a significant detractor.

          I wonder since the output of a fuel cell is pure heated CO2, this output can be fed back directly into the solar input side to further improve efficiency?

          Maybe there are other absorption cycle that can be added to the chain after the fuel cell tha

    • by Ihlosi (895663)
      Why would you want to convert Carbon Dioxide into Carbon Monoxide?

      Because carbon monoxide can be used as fuel and substrate for further synthesis processes.

      • Photosynthesis offers the same advantages, without the technology overheads. In addition it offers some nice byproducts, like grains, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.

        Using vegetation as feedstock for charcoal production will effectively sequester carbon for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. Additionally, carbon sequestered in this way is a good soil ammendment, that can make poor soils more productive.

        Google on href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar">"biochar" for more about this approach.

        • by wiggles (30088)

          Problem with that is, vegetation rots eventually, releasing methane - a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Sure, you can flame it off, but then you're still releasing that captured CO2 back to the atmosphere. Only by increasing the forest footprint of the world, or causing massive algae blooms in the oceans [wikipedia.org] can you really sequester CO2 in vegetation.

          • by PapayaSF (721268)

            Only by increasing the forest footprint of the world, or causing massive algae blooms in the oceans can you really sequester CO2 in vegetation.

            I imagine some sort of GMO supertree that grows as fast as bamboo, for carbon sequestration and a cheap building material.

          • There is a notable lack of reading comprehension showing in parent post.

            To make the obvious more clear, the vegetation is converted to charcoal. Roughly 30 - 35% of the carbon in the vegetation is sequestered, as charcoal, for tens of thousands of years, so long as it is kept too moist to burn. And to repeat, charcoal granules are an excellent soil amendment promoting better soil ecology and retention of irrigation water.

            Google on "biochar" [wikipedia.org] for more about this approach.

        • Photosynthesis offers the same advantages,

          Photosynthesis has a comparatively low efficiency, which will come back to bite you if the space for your application is limited.

          Also, only works in a fairly narrow temperature range (if it's 10 degrees below zero, fairly little photosynthetic activity will happen even you have plenty of sunlight). In addition it offers some nice byproducts, like grains, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.

          The electricity-to-hydrocarbon route can use space that's unsuited for growing

          • I agree with all the points made in parent post, except the one about "comparatively low efficiency".

            Conversion of biomass left after harvest of crops to biochar involves pyrolysis which is exothermic and can produce electricity through steam or turbine driven generators. By properly marrying together mature technologies that we have been using for over a century we could be turning agricultural waste directly into electricity WHILE AT THE SAME TIME removing 30% - 50% of the carbon in that biomass from the

    • by userw014 (707413)

      I didn't see where Carbon Monoxide (CO) is mentioned in the articles or the summary of the paper. (The paper itself is more than I can read right now.)

      Where is CO involved in this process?

      • by kolbe (320366)

        If you look up the properties of Formic Acid on any Chemistry site and review its compounds and decomposition state you'll see that it dissipates, breaks down, decomposes into Carbon Dioxide and Water.

        Actually, here is a link to wikipedia that is actually correct in statement:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        Otherwise, here is my source:

        http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10... [acs.org]

        See the main paragraph below the introduction in the scanned image.

  • ... from H2O, air-derived CO2 and electricity is already at 40% efficiency (which, considering a 15% efficiency of the solar panels, would translate into about 6% sunlight->methane efficiency), they still have a lot of work to do on the process.

    However, I believe that (electricity and/or heat)+H2O+CO2->some hydrocarbon is going to be the next big thing in the chemical industry. The company or individual that comes up with a practical, inexpensive solution will basically have a license to print money.

    • If the goal is to reduce global warming however, methane is a much more powerful warming gas. What I think would be a better use is transformation to calcium carbonate. This would produce cement.

      http://www.scientificamerican.... [scientificamerican.com]

      • by itzly (3699663)
        Obviously, the methane would be used as fuel, not released into the atmosphere.
    • by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @04:38AM (#47374611)

      The two dreams are:
      - A 3D printer that takes its ink from the atmospheric carbon.
      - A solar panel that produces lipids, sugars and proteins.

      So... a tree.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        So... a tree.

        No, no, no no no no no.... We are too technologically advanced to use common sense and cheap readily available natural processes. We must pour billions of dollars into a self-created industry to develop technologies that are expensive to build and maintain to solve a problem that only exists in computer models mostly based on assumptions and "best guesses". This is because of our scientific superiority over nature. We are smart. This is what smart people do.

  • There is an amazing piece of technology that harnesses sunlight, converts water and CO2 into complex carbohydrates, useful proteins and even medicines. It self propagates and can be installed in a variety of environments. There is an existing harvesting infrastructure and it also produces an essential building material. It is known as trees.
    • by aurb (674003)
      Yes, but who owns the patents? If you cannot keep others from using this technology and make all the money, it's useless...
      • by Thanshin (1188877)

        Indeed! Because before patents nothing useful was ever invented.

        The order is as follows:
        1 - Fire making. (useless)
        2 - Patents.
        3 - The wheel.

      • by sjbe (173966)

        Yes, but who owns the patents?

        Probably Monsanto...

    • by dave420 (699308)
      Trees decompose, returning their CO2 into the atmosphere, so it's useless for permanent sequestration. The coal we use was created before bacteria evolved the ability to decompose trees, so it's not quite as simple as you seem to think...
      • The coal we use was created before bacteria evolved the ability to decompose trees, so it's not quite as simple as you seem to think...

        bollocks

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Bollocks indeed. Coal mostly consists of the tiny little black spores on the undersides of fern leaves. Over a hundred million years or so, these tough little tarry thingies could collect into a coal seam. After several hundred million years, there could be a usable coal deposit. Sometimes, some of the ancient tree roots are preserved inside the coal. The rest of the forest and ferns rotted - bacteria ate it.

      • Trees (and agricultural "waste") can be converted to charcoal through pyrolysis. About 1/3rd of the carbon that was captured by the plants becomes biochar, which is a useful soil ammendment, and which sequesters the carbon for tens of thousands of years. So in effect as good as changing it back into coal (but with nicer side effects, like apples, zucchini, etc).

        • And even there you aren't maximizing the value. I end up making a fair amount of biochar every year in my smoker and BBQ, both are home made since I didn't like the ones available for sale. Put in some trimming from relatives' apple, pear, or cherry trees and use those to give a nice flavor, I have also been know to dispose of apples and pears that aren't fit for consumption in similar fashion which really adds flavor. I save up the char from these and it gets added to the garden every year which also is wh
    • by itzly (3699663)
      But photosynthesis efficiency is really poor, and using the wood as fuel isn't very efficient either. With modern technology we can do much better than trees.
      • While the solar illumination -> biomass conversion is only about 6%, one needs to consider the whole life cycle of the technology.
        Trees have a number of difficult to beat efficiencies.
        Firstly, they do not require manufacturing (which uses a significant amount of energy and materials). Secondly, they do not require transport to site. They also self replicate which is a huge bonus that other technologies cannot currently compete with. Also, trees produce a variety of highly useful materials. Yes there

        • by itzly (3699663)
          On the other hand, trees need plenty of fresh water and nutrients. In places where these are available, we often remove the trees to clear the area for food production. I don't think this is going to improve any time soon. High tech solar plants can be set up in the otherwise useless deserts. By the way, your 6% number seems rather high. Which tree is that ?
          • It's lucky that we have so many different trees (and plants in general) that given a start can colonise almost any environment. The 6% figure comes from Zhu, Ort, and Long 2008, see this post for some discussion: http://biology.stackexchange.c... [stackexchange.com]
            • by itzly (3699663)
              But not every plant is suitable. It's rather pointless to grow some weeds or grasses and let them decay a few years later. For a quick glance, it looks like the 6% figure comes from ideal circumstances, but without extensive help, most places in the world are lacking water and basic nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium for optimal growth.
              • I agree, carbon sequestration technology requires use of the end products in ways that don't return the CO2 to the carbon cycle (or at least slow down turnover). This is no different for any technology (including tree biotech). However, there is no technology that I have seen that is more efficient in life-cycle analysis than the well considered use of biological methods of CO2 harvesting. Water use is also a key requirement of other CO2 harvesting techniques so not a specific negative of the use of plants
                • by Immerman (2627577)

                  Quite so. Tangentially related, have you seen this talk on reversing desertification? The fellow seems to be on to something, and even if you're mostly growing grasses and meat, if you can drastically increase the biomass in areas where vegetation is currently extremely sparse that's an enormous amount of carbon sequestration potential, in addition to the numerous other environmental and climatological benefits of nurturing a thriving biosphere.

                  http://www.ted.com/talks/allan... [ted.com]

    • That path doesn't directly produce formic acid. Plant trees->Grow Aphids on them ->Feed Aphids to ants -> Harvest ants->Voila! Formic acid.
      Once you have your formic acid, bury the Plants,Aphids and Ants and you have sequestered tons of carbon under ground, clearing up the air.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Trees breathe CO2. Problem solved.

  • by Crashmarik (635988) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @03:58AM (#47374547)

    But I read this and went HUNH ?

    Formic acid isn't used for much of anything except preservatives and antibacterials, and some niche tanning and cleaning uses. It allready has biological means of production (Hint this traps CO2 as well), and this diverts electricity (read energy) from uses where it's already well employed ?

    The only renewable environmental thing here is the solar panel and some future research on maybe fuel cells.

    • by anubi (640541)
      Formic acid ( MSDS - 4 page PDF ) [reagents.com] is a kinda nasty little chemical... Are you sure anyone wants to make it?
      • Well pretty sure nobody wants to make the stuff for energy storage. I didn't catch what the efficiency of the solar panel was but 2% final efficiency ? You might as well just hook the panel up to the grid, eat the transmission losses and store the energy in batteries.

    • Yeah, I am sure that nobody would ever think to use this for other chemical reactions.
  • I can't help but wonder how much formic acid would be generated to reduce the excess CO2 we create in any significant measure.
  • It just sounds like nuclear waste programs, capture and store .... sure, but sooner or later you still have to come to grips with the amount of waste whether in raw form or captured form. It just seems like doing something simply for a short term gain, to be seen as doing something. Yet the real problem seems to be the inefficiencies of the processes producing the CO2 in the first place.

    It's like flooding in a ship, you don't try to stop the flooding, you seek to slow the flooding to a manageable rate. T

  • Maybe we should just breed more ants.

  • With power from a commercially available solar panel provided by utility company Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G)

    Why the hell would you even mention that? The source of the electricity for an electrochemical proof-of-concept reaction matters not at all - Much less, the company that happened to sell you the solar panel. If the core reaction works, you can prove it just as thoroughly using grid power as you can using Product Placement-powered Greenwashing.

    That said, running this reaction fro
  • A co-worker has a law of problems, which states that problems, like matter, can neither be created nor destroyed. They can only be moved around. In this case we are exchanging a carbon problem for a formic acid problem.
  • by macraig (621737)

    Nothing hurts worse than these synthetic bee stings.

  • Crazy ants use formic acid and are impervious to fire ants. Do they get it from CO2? How much CO2 does a crazy ant sequester? If you've never seen a crazy ant they don't bit or sting but they are FAST and they are MANY.

    http://www.ibtimes.com/crazy-a... [ibtimes.com]

  • How about: C02 ->(some catalyst process like a tree) -> C + O2

    Then get some ribs for the 4th, and heat the ribs up with the 'C'? PARTY!!!
  • Normally, formic acid is 800-1200 / tonne. I wonder if this would be a great deal cheaper?
  • Storing CO2 does not help anyone, and only does harm. The problem is not that there is too much CO2 in the world, the problem is that we convert way too much carbon and oxygen into CO2. Period. If we store all the CO2, we deprive ourselves from oxygen, because we keep on converting it! The Biosphere II experiment has clearly demonstrated that (by using concrete, which, by itself, stores CO2). Storing CO2 is just one more environmental crime to cover up another.
  • Am I the only one that thought of the Keshe Foundation [wikipedia.org] and their claim of solar panels that capture CO2 and CH4? [keshefoundation.org]

    Did this startup simply "borrow" the knowledge from the widely-distributed USB stick and claim it as their own?

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