UNSW team creates synthetic methane using only sunlight

Rendered image of methane molecules (synthetic)
Image: Shutterstock

Engineers at UNSW have developed a way to produce synthetic methane from carbon dioxide using only sunlight. The research team’s process involves utilising light and heat to induce a reaction which creates synthetic methane from CO₂.

Their research, published in EES Catalysis, could help to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

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“Methane is the major component of natural gas, and already widely used as a source of fuel, but is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Creating synthetic methane using only the natural resource of the sun is a cleaner and greener alternative for usage in heavy transportation, shipping, and other specific industries where gas usage is essential,” Dr Emma Lovell explains.

“By employing specific catalysts and support materials, we have demonstrated a new pathway for visible light to drive the conversion of CO₂ into methane. This not only contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions, but also adds value to the captured CO₂ by creating a valuable chemical product.”

Led by the team from the School of Chemical Engineering, Professor Rose Amal, Dr Priyank Kumar, Dr Emma C. Lovell, Yi Fen (Charlotte) Zhu, Associate Professor Jason Scott, Dr Bingqiao Xie, and Dr Jodie A. Yuwono, their work not only tackles environmental concerns, but also leverages renewable energy to power the conversion process.

“Being able to directly use sunlight reduces the costs required for energy generation to facilitate the reaction. This alleviates one of the major challenges in the pursuit and application of CO₂ derived fuel, which is contingent on the availability of low-cost, low carbon energy inputs,” PhD candidate Zhu says.

The transformation of waste CO₂ into synthetic fuel creates a circular fuel economy. This means it creates a closed-loop system addressing environmental concerns and lessening reliance on fossil fuel extraction. This approach fosters sustainability by reusing carbon emissions and mitigating impact on the environment.

Affordable energy generation also plays a crucial role in this process as the direct and efficient utilisation of sunlight offsets power consumption and associated overhead costs for the reaction. This leads to reduced production costs for synthetic fuel, making it more economically viable and accessible.

Finally, the diverse chemical applications of this research extend beyond fuel production. The team is currently applying the findings to visible light-assisted CO₂ conversion into other high-value chemicals, potentially impacting a wide range of industries, from fuel production to pharmaceuticals. This versatility highlights the potential for broader innovations and solutions stemming from sustainable energy research.

“One of the most promising aspects of this research is its potential impact on industries like fuel production, cement manufacturing, biomass gasification and pharmaceuticals. I would say it represents a more sustainable fuel alternative by closing the carbon loop,” A/Prof. Scott says.

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“In terms of converting the CO₂ into value-added products, this represents a much cleaner alternative than products which currently rely on fossil-fuel derived precursors for their manufacture.

“Looking ahead, we are already envisioning a new future direction.”

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