Researchers at MIT have developed a new membrane-based system that can convert carbon dioxide emissions into useful alternate fuels. The process has been effectively demonstrated on a small-scale and the researchers hope to ultimately adapt the system to conventional fossil fuel-based power plants.
Made of lanthanum, calcium, and iron oxide, the membrane is designed to separate out oxygen from carbon dioxide, leaving behind carbon monoxide that can then be turned into a variety of useful fuels.
The process requires a significant energy input to produce the up to 990° C (1,814° F) temperatures needed to separate the carbon dioxide input into oxygen and carbon monoxide. But the researchers suggest this heat energy could be provided by either, “solar energy or by waste heat, some of which could come from the power plant itself.”
A pragmatic hypothetical outcome would be to incorporate the process into a natural gas power plant by adding an entirely new fuel output stream to the plant. The carbon dioxide produced by generating electricity from the burning gas would then be fed through the membrane system, which itself would be powered by a small stream of the original natural gas.
The carbon monoxide output could then be mixed with hydrogen to produce syngas, which can be used to generate electricity, as a fuel in internal combustion engines, or fed into the existing gas distribution network. This process would create a new commercial output for the power plant while also reducing greenhouse emissions.
It is worth noting that this research is co-funded by Shell Oil, which hopefully points to the process finding a real, practical outcome. After all, if the big fossil fuel companies can find a way to turn their carbon dioxide emissions into a positive revenue source then its a real win-win scenario for everyone.