Most companies are anxious to get rid of their carbon-dioxide emissions, but one group of researchers hopes to turn that pollution into a potentially valuable fuel.
UOP, an Illinois-based chemical-production company, on Tuesday announced a partnership with the University of Southern California's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute to develop and commercialize new technology that would convert carbon dioxide into methanol. The hope is that methanol might someday be used as an alternative fuel source.
"The development of this technology could have significant impact on global energy security and global warming by converting carbon dioxide into useful products and making new clean fuel technologies," said George Olah, director of USC's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, in a written statement.
USC has already developed the basic chemistry to transform CO2 into methanol, and will work exclusively with UOP to make the process commercially viable.
While neither party would reveal how much money will be invested in the collaboration, commercialization will take an estimated three or four years, according to Robert Aniszfel, the associate director of LHRI.
Aniszfel said that the plan is to begin CO2 conversion from highly concentrated sources such as coal-burning power plants, and eventually work toward converting CO2 directly from the atmosphere.
The advantage of using methanol as a fuel, he said, is that it is liquid at normal temperature, making it easy to transport. It is also extremely versatile -- it can be used in internal-combustion engines, converted to electrical energy through fuel cells or made into dimethyl ether, which is a diesel fuel.
The new partnership isn't the only group hoping to transform carbon dioxide into useful products such as biofuels.
After all, there's no shortage of carbon dioxide. And with the U.S. Congress considering several so-called "cap-and-trade" bills, which would limit the amount of carbon dioxide that companies can emit and set up an auction system for them to buy and sell carbon credits, technologies that can remove emissions could have an additional cost advantage.
A number of other companies are working in the CO2 conversion field, such as Carbon Recycling International in Iceland, which also turns pollution into methanol. Linc Energy and BioCleanCoal, both based in Australia, are partnering to transform CO2 emissions into oxygen and biomass (see Turning Coal's CO2 Into Biomass).
And Ithaca, NY-based Novomer recently received $6.6 million in a first round of venture funding to convert CO2 and carbon monoxide into biodegradable plastics (see Novomer Raises $6.6M).
But at this point in the game, it's too early to tell which conversion method will be the most beneficial for the environment -- or the most cost-effective, according to John Quealy, managing director of Canaccord Adams.
"Overall, there is going to be a tremendous amount of focus on CO2 mitigation," Quealy predicted. "It is still very early for the entire CO2 technology initiative to pick a winner. But to see these investment dollars and this intellectual capital is a very good and bullish sign for the industry."