Posted on: February 16, 2020 at 2:19 pm
Last updated: May 26, 2020 at 10:02 pm

Since the industrial revolution, greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed. While these gases are necessary to keep our planet warm enough to inhabit, they have now reached unprecedented levels and are endangering our planet [1].

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Carbon Dioxide, or CO2, is the primary greenhouse gas that is responsible for the drastic increase in the last several decades and is a direct result of human activity [2]. CO2 levels are now the highest they’ve ever been in the last four hundred thousand years, which has prompted the scientific community to warn that we are now standing at the threshold of a new geological era, which some are calling the “Anthropocene”. This new time in earth’s geological history will be one in which the climate is very different from that of our ancestors [3].

For this reason, climate scientists and researchers all over the world are working relentlessly to find ways to not only lower our CO2 emissions but to actually remove them from our atmosphere.

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One group of scientists have recently discovered a way to use a carbon-based fuel to generate power, which would effectively remove CO2 from the air.

Ocean Motion

An interdisciplinary team made up of researchers from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., China, and Hong Kong are the first to harvest energy from water waves to create a carbon-based liquid fuel. They were able to generate static electricity from the rising and falling motion of the waves to carbon dioxide into formic acid [4].

Formic acid is found naturally in the stings and bites of many insects, including ants and bees [5]. It contains hydrogen, which means it can be used as a biofuel to produce energy [6]. The trouble, however, is that producing formic acid is costly and inefficient, which has prompted many scientists to look into ways in which the conversion process could be improved. 

Read: Desert Farm Grows 17,000 Tons of Food without Soil, Pesticides, Fossil Fuels or Groundwater

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How Does the Process Work?

The method this team has developed uses special devices called triboelectric nanogenerators, which are spheres that contain a concertina, or accordion-like structure and float on the surface of the water. 

As the spheres move up and down with the undulating waves, the folds in the inner structure rub against each other, creating static electricity. This should, in theory, cause an electromagnetic cell to convert carbon dioxide into formic acid, however, the triboelectric generators are not consistent enough, and deliver a very unpredictable voltage.

The solution? The team added a middle step. Using a supercapacitor and a system of rectifiers, they were able to collect the charge that was generated by the spheres and release it into the cell in a controlled fashion [4,7].

An electrochemistry expert at University College London, UK, Katherine Holt, explains that this group of scientists are the first to think of a way to bring two of these technologies together in the same system. 

“It’s going from fundamental lab-based research to demonstrating on a small scale that this is feasible,” she said [4].

Read: Scientists Create Liquid Fuel That Can Store The Sun’s Energy For Up to 18 Years

Limitations

This new technology is very promising, but it does have one glaring limitation: where will the CO2 come from? 

“If I just leave a solution open to the air, some carbon dioxide will dissolve in,” says Holt. “But the concentration will be quite low” [4].

Team member Siu-Fung Leung agrees and notes that the entire field is facing this problem. One potential solution is to source concentrated CO2 from the output of a factory or power plant, but that leaves the question of how to feed that CO2 into a collection of generators on the ocean [4].

Leung assures that a lot of people in the field of carbon dioxide reduction are working on the problem, which hopefully means that large-scale application of the process will be possible in the near future.

Keep Reading: Teen Scientist Creates SMART Armor Shield To Help in Radiation Treatment

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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