Aberdeen scientists in 'world first' energy transition project

Scientists at the University of Aberdeen are to embark on a £250,000 research project that aims to achieve a world first by using a plasma electrolyser to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons for energy use.

If successful, the method could enable the use of renewable energy for the efficient conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbons, while revolutionising approaches to decarbonising heavy industry – one of the key challenges in the energy transition.

The project - Electrocatalysis in non-thermal plasma for energy storage – is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

It is one of ten projects announced today by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that are designed to support the development of adventurous ideas for new materials, devices, fuels and technologies in support of the UK’s ambition to achieve a net zero society by 2050.

Led by Professor Angel Cuesta Ciscar from the University’s School of Natural and Computing Sciences, and Dr Panagiotis Kechagiopoulos from the School of Engineering, the project will explore how carbon dioxide could be converted into hydrocarbons for energy use through plasma electrocatalysis.

Through this process, they will aim to create an electrochemical reaction by applying a voltage between two electrodes in a weakly ionised gas, resulting in the reduction of CO2 and the oxidation of hydrogen.

This combination of plasma-catalysis and electrocatalysis could allow the use of renewable electricity generated by renewable sources to power a plasma electrolyser, in an entirely new process that would efficiently convert CO2 back to hydrocarbons, reducing CO2 emissions as part of a circular economy model.

The team’s aim is to build a prototype device that could help to generate a renewable form of energy that could be used for efficient energy storage, or to decarbonise important industrial processes that produce a lot of CO2 such as cement or steel production.

Professor Angel Cuesta Ciscar explained: “The energy transition requires technologies for efficient energy storage and conversion or to enable the decarbonisation of industrial processes, and this is where electrochemical processes can play a crucial role.

“But while these processes are inherently energy efficient, they’re often still not efficient enough to overcome cost barriers.

“There is a potential solution to this, where a reaction would be induced applying a voltage between two electrodes in a weakly ionised gas, resulting in the reduction of CO2 and the oxidation of hydrogen.

“This combination of plasma-catalysis and electrocatalysis has the potential to enable efficient conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbons driven by renewable electricity, thereby contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases and to a fairer and more sustainable transition to a net zero.”

Professor Cuesta added: “Despite the wide research interest in plasma-catalysis this approach has never been attempted, and our research will require technical and scientific breakthroughs to deliver its aims.

“While challenging, there is the exciting potential to develop a device that could play a crucial role in the creation of a circular fuel economy with a positive impact for the environment and for jobs in the energy sector.”

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, congratulated those whose projects have been selected for funding.

She commented: “The projects announced today offer a variety of radical approaches to achieving a sustainable, cost-effective and fair transition to net zero and net negative greenhouse gas emissions.

“Harnessing and building on the latest developments in chemical engineering, materials science and chemistry, these ideas could help to halt the climate crisis and deliver sustainable, long-term growth.”

Science Minister George Freeman added: “Harnessing science, technology and innovation is fundamental to achieving clean growth.

"By investing in innovative clean tech projects like those announced today we are supporting both UK research and our global clean tech sector.”

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