Surrey Uni seeks fuels from direct air capture

Engineers at Surrey University are working on a process to create carbon-negative fuels using CO2 harvested from direct air capture.

Hans Reniers via Unsplash

DAC is seen by many, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as a vital technology to stabilise and perhaps ultimately reverse the net amount of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. However, existing technologies to extract CO2 for the air are mostly energy-intensive and costly. The Surrey project, recently backed with £250,000 of EPSRC funding, aims to capture CO2 and use dynamic catalysis to create methanol, the value of which could offset the cost of capture.

“Synthesising methanol would constitute a significant advancement, coupling a presently expensive but necessary method of CO2 capture from the air, with the production of a substance that can bring some revenue to offset costs and further incentivise the scaling up of direct air capture,” said project lead Dr Melis Duyar.

“The main challenge for our project will be reconciling the fact that commercial methanol synthesis takes place at high pressures [50-100 bar] and moderate temperatures [200-300oC], while direct air capture is typically carried out in ambient conditions. We want to show that it is possible to produce methanol in mild conditions through dynamic catalysis.”

If successful, the Surrey team will extend their project to show it is possible to synthesise other chemicals with a negative carbon footprint, including sustainable fertiliser.

“Pulling chemical building blocks directly out of the air can create a ‘just in time’ process that will help us finally say goodbye to safety hazards such as storing large quantities of chemicals,” said Dr Duyar. “Importantly, this process could boost the economy by spurring carbon-negative growth, as well as provide fuel security for the UK.”

The International Energy Agency has identified direct air capture and storage as one of the three biggest opportunities to achieve Net Zero and methanol production using hydrogen and CO2 as an important innovation gap. According to Surrey University, a significant advantage of direct air capture technology is that it does not rely on extensive land and water use, unlike alternatives such as biomass.