Alternative fuel made from carbon dioxide

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the French gas company Total have succeeded in converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol. The technology offers realistic market potential.

The world is urgently looking for ways to manufacture liquid fuels and chemical products from alternative, sustainable resources. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and the French oil and gas company Total have now made an important contribution in this regard: they have developed a new technology that efficiently converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen directly into methanol.

According to an ETH Zurich press release announcing their new technology, methanol is regarded as a commodity or bulk chemical that can be converted into fuels and a wide variety of chemical products, including those that today are mainly based on fossil resources. In addition, methanol has the potential to be used as a propellant, such as in methanol fuel cells.

The core of their new approach is a chemical catalyst based on indium oxide. ETH Zurich researchers already demonstrated a few years ago that indium oxide is capable of catalysing the necessary chemical reaction, but it was not a commercially viable option due to the large quantities needed.

The team of scientists have now succeeded in significantly boosting the activity of the catalyst by treating the indium oxide with a small quantity of palladium.

The new technology has two major advantages. First, the carbon dioxide used to produce the methanol can be extracted from the atmosphere or from the exhaust discharged by combustion power plants, closing the carbon cycle. Even the hydrogen, which requires electricity to produce, can be made sustainably by using electricity from renewable sources such as wind or solar.

Second, the technology is almost ready for the market, unlike other methods for producing green fuels. To this end, ETH Zurich and Total have jointly filed a patent for the technology, and Total “now plans to scale up the approach” and implement it in a demonstration unit in the next few years.

Image credit: Milan Popovic via Unsplash

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