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Game-changing invention converts both CO2 and plastic waste into renewable energy

A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge have made a significant breakthrough in renewable energy and sustainable fuel production. It could ultimately eliminate the need for fossil fuels.

They have shown how carbon dioxide, whether captured from industrial exhaust or even directly from the air, can be turned into clean, renewable fuels harnessing only solar energy.

How does it work?

This innovative approach revolves around a solar-powered reactor. It was created by the researchers themselves. The reactor transforms not only captured CO2 but also plastic waste into sustainable fuels and other valuable chemicals.

Through this method, the researchers managed to convert CO2 into syngas. These are a critical precursor for sustainable liquid fuels. They also successfully transformed plastic bottles into glycolic acid, a chemical commonly found in cosmetic products.

This pioneering experiment, unlike earlier ones, utilized real-world sources of CO2. The scientists extracted CO2 from industrial exhaust and ambient air. This demonstrated the technology’s ability to capture, concentrate, and convert CO2 into renewable fuel.

Eliminating the need for oil and gas with renewable energy

Advancements are necessary before the technology can be scaled up for industrial use. However, the findings, published in the journal Joule, signify an essential stride towards generating environmentally friendly fuels. This breakthrough could potentially eliminate the need for harmful oil and gas extraction.

For some time now, the research team led by Professor Erwin Reisner in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry has been dedicated to developing sustainable, net-zero carbon fuels. They took inspiration from photosynthesis, wherein plants convert sunlight into food.

Using a similar concept, they developed ‘artificial leaves’ that convert CO2 and water into fuels. These are powered entirely by the sun.

However, the practical utility of this technology depends on its ability to actively capture CO2 from industrial processes or directly from the air. The technology doesn’t do much good if requires pure, concentrated CO2 in a cylinder.

Overcoming technical obstacles

This is a considerable technical challenge since the air we breathe contains many different types of molecules. The technology needs to selectively convert highly diluted CO2.

Reisner stressed the ultimate objective of this research, stating, “We’re not just interested in decarbonization, but de-fossilization—we need to completely eliminate fossil fuels in order to create a truly circular economy.”

The technology could help reduce carbon emissions in the medium term by capturing them from industry and transforming them into something useful. However, Reisner suggests a more ambitious goal. He plans to “cut fossil fuels out of the equation entirely and capture CO2 from the air.”

Drawing ideas from carbon capture and storage (CCS)—a method of capturing CO2 and storing it underground—the researchers transformed their solar-driven technology to work with flue gas or directly from the air. This conversion changes CO2 and plastics into renewable energy and fuel and chemicals using the power of the sun alone.

System captures CO2 while ignoring other gases

The researchers devised a system that traps CO2 selectively by bubbling air through an alkaline solution. Non-target gases like nitrogen and oxygen simply bubble out. This leaves behind concentrated CO2 in solution for conversion to renewable energy sources

This ingenious system has two compartments. In one, captured CO2 solution is converted into syngas. In the other, plastics are transformed into useful chemicals, all under the influence of sunlight.

According to co-first author Dr. Motiar Rahaman, the plastic component adds a crucial layer of functionality to this system.

He explains, “Capturing and using CO2 from the air makes the chemistry more difficult. But, if we add plastic waste to the system, the plastic donates electrons to the CO2. The plastic breaks down to glycolic acid… and the CO2 is converted into syngas, which is a simple fuel.”

Dr. Sayan Kar, another co-first author, highlights the system’s capability to convert two harmful waste products—plastic and carbon emissions—into something truly useful.

Rahaman adds, “Instead of storing CO2 underground, like in CCS, we can capture it from the air and make clean fuel from it.”

This alternative process could potentially phase out the fossil fuel industry from the chain of fuel production. This would obviously help in the mitigation efforts of further climate change.

“The fact that we can effectively take CO2 from air and make something useful from it is special,” said Kar, “It’s satisfying to see that we can actually do it using only sunlight.”

Scaling the device for renewable energy at mass scale

Currently, the team is putting their efforts into refining a bench-top demonstrator device. The goal is to enhance efficiency and practicality.

This will serve to underline the benefits of coupling direct air capture with CO2 utilization. Their hope is to forge a clear path to a zero-carbon future.

This research embodies a promising avenue in the battle against climate change. While it is still in the developmental stages, the potential implications are enormous.

Should this technology become scalable and cost-effective, it could provide a sustainable solution to two of the world’s most pressing environmental issues – carbon emissions and plastic waste.

As Kar puts it, the team is not just converting CO2 into useful products, they’re doing it with the sun’s energy. The sun the cleanest energy source we have.

Ultimately, the goal of this research is not just to decrease carbon emissions, but to actively reverse them. If successful, it could reshape the landscape of renewable energy and bring us one step closer to a truly circular, sustainable economy.

More about the quest for renewable energy

Renewable energy has been a major focus of research and development for several years as countries around the world strive to reduce their carbon footprints, limit global warming, and become less dependent on fossil fuels.

Types of Renewable Energy

There are several types of renewable energy sources, each with its own benefits and challenges. These include solar power, wind power, hydroelectric power, tidal and wave power, geothermal power, and bioenergy. Solar and wind are the fastest-growing sectors of renewable energy.

Solar Power

Solar energy harnesses the power of the sun. Photovoltaic (PV) cells on solar panels convert sunlight directly into electricity. Concentrated solar power (CSP) systems use mirrors to focus sunlight onto a small area to generate heat, which then drives a heat engine connected to an electrical power generator.

Wind Power

Wind power uses the kinetic energy from the wind to spin turbines and generate electricity. It’s a clean, cost-effective, and sustainable form of energy. However, it does face challenges such as intermittency and issues with placement, as wind farms can be considered eyesores and can impact local wildlife.

Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power generates electricity by using flowing or falling water to spin a turbine connected to a generator. It’s a reliable and proven technology but constructing dams for hydroelectric power plants can have significant environmental and social impacts, including changes to ecosystems and displacement of local communities.

Tidal and Wave Power

Tidal and wave power are forms of hydropower that convert the energy of tides or waves into electricity. While they have great potential, these technologies are still in the early stages of development and face challenges in terms of cost and environmental impact.

Geothermal Power

Geothermal power taps into the heat within the Earth’s crust to generate electricity or heat buildings. It is a reliable and consistent source of power, but it is location-specific, and drilling for geothermal reservoirs can be expensive and challenging.


Bioenergy comes from organic materials like plant and animal waste. These can be directly burned for heat or power, or converted into biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel. Bioenergy has a wide range of applications but must be carefully managed to ensure it’s truly sustainable and doesn’t compete with food crops or contribute to deforestation.

Storage and Grid Integration for Renewable Energy

One of the main challenges with renewable energy is that many sources are intermittent – they don’t provide a constant stream of energy. Energy storage solutions, like batteries and pumped hydro storage, are essential for smoothing out these fluctuations and ensuring a consistent energy supply. Grid integration is also a significant technical challenge, as power grids need to be able to handle the variable inputs from different renewable sources.

Renewable Energy Policy and Economics

The transition to renewable energy is not just a technological challenge but also a policy and economic one. Policies like renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, and carbon pricing can incentivize the development and deployment of renewable technologies. Additionally, the cost of many forms of renewable energy has been falling, making them increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.

Future Renewable Energy Technologies

There are several promising technologies on the horizon, including advanced biofuels, floating offshore wind turbines, and solar fuels. There’s also a great deal of interest in fusion power, which could provide a nearly limitless supply of clean energy if it can be made practical.

In summary, the quest for renewable energy involves a wide range of technologies and approaches, each with its own set of benefits, challenges, and potential. The goal is to create a sustainable, low-carbon energy system that can power our society without contributing to climate change.

Decentralization of Energy Production

In addition to harnessing renewable resources, there’s a growing shift towards decentralization in energy systems. This means moving away from a few large power plants towards a network of smaller, distributed energy generators, which can include solar panels on homes, local wind turbines, or community bioenergy facilities. Decentralization can improve energy security, reduce transmission losses, and allow more people to participate in the energy market.

Integration of AI and IoT

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) in the energy sector is also a promising development. AI can improve the efficiency of energy usage and assist in the management of energy grids, while IoT devices can provide real-time data on energy generation and consumption, supporting smarter energy use and grid management.

Electric Vehicles and Transportation

The transportation sector is also undergoing a transformation with the rise of electric vehicles (EVs), which are powered by electricity rather than gasoline or diesel. This is a significant step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, with advancements in vehicle-to-grid technology, EVs could even feed energy back into the grid when not in use.

Building and Industry Efficiency

Reducing the energy consumption of buildings and industry is also part of the renewable energy transition. This involves increasing energy efficiency, using sustainable building materials, and improving industrial processes. For instance, green buildings that utilize passive solar design, energy-efficient appliances, and advanced insulation can drastically reduce energy needs.

Public Awareness and Education

Lastly, public awareness and education are crucial elements in the quest for renewable energy. This involves increasing understanding about the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and encouraging behaviors that support sustainability.

The journey towards a future powered by renewable energy is a multifaceted and complex one, touching on virtually every aspect of our lives, from the way we power our homes and vehicles, to the way we design our cities and economies.

It’s not just a matter of swapping out fossil fuels for clean energy sources; it involves rethinking and reshaping our entire energy system towards sustainability and resilience. It’s a significant challenge, but with promising advancements in technology, policy, and public awareness, it’s a challenge that we’re well-equipped to face.

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