Carbon Illustration

Creating fuel out of thin air might sound impossible, but not for researchers at the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. They’ve created methanol from carbon dioxide. It’s the first time anyone has done that at temperatures low enough that the process could be powered by renewable energy sources.

G.K. Surya Prakash and Nobel laureate George Olah of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences see their work as part of efforts to counter global warming. By transforming the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into its combustible cousin methanol, scientists would be able to attack global warming from two directions: stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while producing clean-burning fuel.

“We need to learn to manage carbon. That is the future,” says Prakash, professor of chemistry and director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

The new conversion process was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the team hopes to refine the process for industrial use—though that may be five to 10 years away.

“Of course it won’t compete with oil today, at around $30 per barrel,” Prakash says. “But right now we burn fossilized sunshine. We will run out of oil and gas, but the sun will be there for another 5 billion years. So we need to be better at taking advantage of it as a resource.”

Methanol, a fuel for internal combustion engines and fuel cells, can also be used as a raw material to produce petrochemical products like formaldehyde.

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