Photonic fibre technologies for solar fuels catalysis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Optoelectronics Research Ctr (closed)


With increasing concerns over current CO2 levels and their association with climate change, research needs to establish a way to prevent further CO2 from reaching the atmosphere. Power production is the highest contributor of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere following by industrial process and transportation. Therefore, establishing technologies that extract the CO2 from these emissions before it reaches the atmosphere is considered the most viable solution. Since various types of CO2 capturing technologies have been developed over the past decade or so, one might ask, why is it that we are still not seeing these technologies rolled out yet? Here are a couple of reasons:
- Expensive: There are various capture types but each of them consumed up to 40% of the power that is generated within the plant itself. This reduces the available energy for end-users, e.g., the general public, which is problematic since we are a nation that is increasingly dependent on technology. Longer power plants operation could top up energy lost to maintain increasing demands but this would increase the cost of energy to cover the additional production costs.
- Size: Different technologies have different size requirements. A number can be retrofitted to existing plants, so space needs to be available for this, and other can only be applied to large plants to takes time for development and construction and is an all-round expensive route to take.
- What about the CO2?: Capturing the CO2 is one thing but what to do with it after is another issue. Researchers continue to focus on its storage in underground depleted gas/oil reservoirs yet there are significant cost implications which occur in the run up to its storage, i.e., transport and injection, etc. Conversion of CO2 into a valuable and reusable product which subsequently closes the cycle would be the best option.
This proposal brings together leading chemists, physicists and engineers at Southampton to develop a novel state-of-the-art technology that not only converts CO2 into a synthetic fuel but does so using solar energy.
Optimised catalytic active sites incorporated into photonic fibres promote photochemical conversion of CO2 directly into synthetic fuel. Alongside this, computational models and simulations will provide physical insight to evaluate and optimise photonic-fibre catalytic converter technology for synthetic fuel generation. This will subsequently support the development of a lab-scale reactor which will demonstrate the scalability of this state-of-the-art technology.
Engagement across the academic, industrial and public sectors will promote further opportunities for expansion and encourage development of early career researchers involved with the programme. The outcomes of the programme will lead to the development of not only new knowledge, but more importantly opportunities for impact within the energy sector.

Planned Impact

This programme will develop a novel multifunctional thermo/photochemical technology which can potentially upgrade stored CO2 directly into synthetic fuel. This could result in radical advances for the carbon capture and utilisation sector. The benefits will be widely felt across the industrial, and public sectors.
The impact this programme could have across the energy production sector is prodigious. The efficient production of synthetic fuel from CO2 emissions would eliminate the high energy consuming underground storage processes, thus supporting lower energy costs for all. The energy production sector will benefit from this programme in a number of ways:

- Engineering optimised scalable reactors that convert more CO2 per structure using solar power would lead reduced energy production costs that would be felt by end-users.

- The programme will investigate the effects of conversion for a variety of fuels supplying the CO2 as such this will directly benefit companies who utilise a wide range of fuel stocks, including local Southampton based Green Tech industry SEaB Energy and more widely others such as E.ON, Scottish Power and Drax.

The programme will produce quantitative metrics enabling a very early stage life cycle analysis to be performed. This will contribute towards understanding the cost implications of future technological deployment which will support policy makers, particularly with regards to the design and operation of future CO2 transport and storage infrastructure as demonstrating the potential application of cyclical synthetic fuel production will provide a suitable cost reduction whilst still using existing hydrocarbon-based transportation infrastructure.

The public will also benefit from the long term cost reductions that could be potentially created by producing energy from waste CO2. The association of increasing CO2 levels and its impact on climate change suggests that extraction to form a renewable fuel could potentially lead to a reduction in climate change related consequences over a longer period of time which will benefit all, such as: increased cases of flooding, drought and the migration of disease vectors.

Finally, this programme will form close partnerships between the University of Southampton, the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre (UKCCSRC), CO2CHEM, the EPSRC Catalysis Hub and various academic and industrial bodies assist with maximising the programmes impact and success.
Description Our highly interdisciplinary project, bringing together chemists, physicists and engineers at Southampton, set out to combine their skill set to try to develop new technological solutions for carbon dioxide utilisation rather than sequestration to find a way to close the carbon loop for future circular economy concepts. We explored the embedding of catalytic active sites incorporated into photonic fibres to promote (solar) photochemical conversion of CO2 directly into synthetic fuel. Alongside this, our published computational models and simulations provided physical insight to evaluate and optimise this novel technology for synthetic fuel generation. As a high risk, adventurous research programme completed over a short time scale, there remain numerous fundamental materials issues to investigate, but efficient renewable energy generation and cheap, reliable, storable energy vectors such as solar fuels and their future impact on the circular economy remain critical challenges for the 21st century.
Exploitation Route Clearly the renewables energy challenge in general is both one of the most intractable and yet one of the most important and pressing issues of the 21st century that must be solved. In future this will require many years of interdisciplinary support and funding to make a meaningful impact. We anticipate our research outcomes will help with understanding the cost implications of future technological deployment which will support policy makers by demonstrating the potential application of circular economy synthetic fuel production.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Energy,Environment