Imagine a machine that could suck carbon dioxide right out of the air and magically transform it into a usable product. It may seem like wishful thinking, but that’s exactly what researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories hope to do. They’ve created a protoype of a device that can turn carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel.
Lead developer Rich Diver recently tested the Counter-Rotating-Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5) for the first time. Using the sun’s energy and a series of chemical reactions, the device converts carbon dioxide from power plants into fuels like gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. While CR5 is still in its infancy, Diver hopes that the machine will be used as an alternative to carbon sequestration, a method of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and injecting it underground.
The cyllindrical machine contains two chambers and 14 rotating rings coated with iron oxide. Using a solar concentrator, scientists heat one of the chambers up to 1,500 celsius., causing the iron oxide to undergo a chemical reaction where it releases oxygen molecules. As the rings rotate, the heated chamber approaches the cold chamber and starts to cool. Scientists then pump carbon dioxide into the chamber, and the iron oxide pulls its lost oxygen molecules from the carbon dioxide, creating carbon monoxide. Scientists can also use the CR5 to create hydrogen. By mixing the hydrogen and carbon monoxide together, researchers can create syngas, a combustible fuel.
But before we can see any cars or planes running on gas made from carbon, scientists need to boost the machine’s efficiency. Consumers shouldn’t expect to see this technology in use for at least another 15-20 years.
It’s important to note that while this machine seems like it would be useful for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning the transportation fuel it creates would then produce more pollution and greenhouse gases. Syngas is certainly not clean-burning. But, as of yet, no one’s come up with a successful way of keeping power plants’ carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere — even carbon sequestration has a long way to go, and some question whether the technology will ever really be feasible. The CR5 may have its limitations, but any project that furthers research on removing carbon from the atmosphere deserves a closer look.