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Synthetic methane created using the sun

Engineers at UNSW have developed a way to produce a synthetic fuel from carbon dioxide using only sunlight.

The research team’s process involves utilising light and heat to induce a reaction which creates synthetic methane from CO₂. The research, published in EES Catalysis, could help to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Research team member Dr Emma Lovell said, “Methane is the major component of natural gas, and already widely used as a source of fuel, but is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Creating synthetic methane using only the natural resource of the sun is a cleaner and greener alternative for usage in heavy transportation, shipping, and other specific industries where gas usage is essential.”

The transformation of waste CO₂ into synthetic fuel creates a circular fuel economy. This means it creates a closed-loop system addressing environmental concerns and lessening reliance on fossil fuel extraction. This approach fosters sustainability by reusing carbon emissions and mitigating impact on the environment.

Research team member Dr Yu Fen (Charlotte) Zhu said, “Being able to directly use sunlight reduces the costs required for energy generation to facilitate the reaction. This alleviates one of the major challenges in the pursuit and application of CO₂ derived fuel, which is contingent on the availability of low-cost, low carbon energy inputs.”

Affordable energy generation also plays a crucial role in this process as the direct and efficient utilisation of sunlight offsets power consumption and associated overhead costs for the reaction. This leads to reduced production costs for synthetic fuel, making it more economically viable and accessible.

“By employing specific catalysts and support materials, we have demonstrated a new pathway for visible light to drive the conversion of CO₂ into methane. This not only contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions, but also adds value to the captured CO₂ by creating a valuable chemical product,” said Lovell.

The diverse chemical applications of this research extend beyond fuel production. The team is currently applying the findings to visible light-assisted CO₂ conversion into other high-value chemicals, potentially impacting a wide range of industries, from fuel production to pharmaceuticals.

Associate professor Jason Scott said, “In terms of converting the CO₂ into value-added products, this represents a much cleaner alternative than products which currently rely on fossil-fuel derived precursors for their manufacture.”

This versatility highlights the potential for broader innovations and solutions stemming from sustainable energy research.

This research involved a collaborative effort by the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering and School of Photovoltaic & Renewable Energy Engineering, the University of Adelaide, and CSIRO.

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