Estimates suggest we produce around 21 billion tons of CO2 every year as a result of our use of coal, oil and natural gas, much of which is contributing to the impending global warming crisis. This has led to some scientists wondering if there is any way we could put CO2 to good use. The answer, it seems, might be a resounding “Yes.”
One team of researchers from Wetsus, the center for excellence for sustainable water technology in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, believes it may be possible to use a combination of membranes and water to pull a current from CO2 – to, in effect, generate more power from our fuel waste product.
The scientists set up a tank filled with water. On one side of the tank is a membrane that allows positively charged ions to pass through. On the other side is a second membrane that allows negatively charged ions through.
The scientists introduce an electrode into the set up and then pump carbon dioxide through the water. At this juncture it separates off the positive hydrogen ions from the negatively charged biocarbonate. Due to the fact that the membranes only allows one of the two kinds of ions through, an electric current moving from one side to the other is then gained.
Hamelers’ team estimates that if we were to harvest all the currently wasted carbon dioxide from homes and power plants, we could produce about 1,570 terawatts of extra electricity every year.
While it’s important to stress this wouldn’t get rid of the CO2 in our atmosphere, it wouldn’t of itself create any extra gas either, though admittedly creating the materials to generate the current might.
Nevertheless, this would mean that by employing the technique we would get more out of our current fossil fuel stores than we currently do, which in turn could in the long run cut down on net fossil fuel usage.
Moreover, it could mean that existing power plants that had previously thought they would have to scale up in order to meet demand would be provided the opportunity of generating more power from their current supply without much extra investment and, crucially, without having to expand.
“The energy is there,” researcher Bert Hamelers told NBC News. “Only you need a turbine to get it. The objective for us was to show that, yes, there is this source of energy and, yes, you can harvest it,” he added. “Of course you need a lot more technological development before this is a system that can be practiced.”
The next step for this new form of recycling will be to ascertain whether the process can remain effective (and cost-effective) when scaled up from a lab setting to separate CO2 at industrial scales.
Given we know that we need to cut back on fossil fuels, anything that can feed demand without inflating overall fossil fuel harvesting or use could be a benefit. However, there may be issues with this. The approach may give fossil fuel regulators cause to think that we can offset much of the damage done by fossil fuels by making these kinds of efficiency savings.
While it is true that a small amount of ground could be clawed back by employing this technique, and without wanting to minimize the potential benefits, this kind of approach alone will not even come close to answering our energy needs and does not meet concerns over fossil fuel usage, which we know is damaging our environment and pushing us ever closer to likely catastrophe.
That said, this innovative technique, along with similar ideas being researched into how we might generate electricity by mixing salt water and fresh water, could, if realized, give us a vital tool for satisfying our energy demand without further harming the planet or exacerbating existing man-made climate change.
Image credit: Thinkstock.