Artificial photosynthesis turns CO2 into sustainable fuel

A greener future by 2035 is in arm's reach with this new tech decarbonizing the transportation industry.
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Slowing climate change and reducing emissions is going to require innovative takes on decarbonization — the reduction or removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the environment. It’s a process that comes naturally to plants. Through photosynthesis, plants release oxygen and capture CO2, helping the planet maintain a balanced atmosphere. 

But plants can only store so much carbon. Although the world’s forests are estimated to currently store more than one-third of global carbon emissions, rising temperatures and drought are reducing their ability to capture carbon. Planting more trees will help, but other strategies will be needed to keep the atmosphere within healthy boundaries. 

What if technology could mimic photosynthesis to capture carbon and produce valuable goods? 

That’s the driving idea behind Dimensional Energy, a company that’s using artificial photosynthesis to produce the raw materials for products like jet fuel. As a finalist in the $20 million Carbon X Prize competition, the startup is in the early stages of showing how recycling CO2 into sustainable fuels could significantly reduce global emissions while also creating a massively profitable industry.

“There are ways to do transportation without oil, and we’ve been doing them more and more since the 1990s,” Dr. Brad Brennan, Vice President at Dimensional Energy, told Freethink. “Back then, battery cars were a blip, if anything, in people’s eyes, and now we’re talking about making jet fuel from carbon dioxide.”

Harnessing photosynthesis 

Without photosynthesis, life on Earth could not exist as we know it. The metabolic function is estimated to have evolved within simple organisms more than 3 billion years ago, a development that contributed to the “Great Oxidation Event,” a period during which atmospheric oxygen levels drastically increased. 

The plants, algae, and bacteria that utilize photosynthesis need three main ingredients: sunlight, water, and CO2. In plants, for example, roots draw water, leaves capture sunlight and carbon dioxide, and cells called chloroplasts generate nutrients through a process called the Calvin cycle. 

Artificial synthesis utilizes a similar process. At Dimensional Energy, the method involves a reactor that houses a proprietary nanocatalyst material that effectively replaces the plant components that facilitate natural photosynthesis. Inside the reactor, the nanocatalyst and CO2 are exposed to sunlight and water, allowing the CO2 and water to break apart and reform into organic compounds called hydrocarbons, which can be used to make jet fuel. 

Dimensional Energy designed its reactors to be modular so that they can be placed at the source of carbon emission, say, at a steel production facility or power plant. Alternatively, CO2 can be stored and transported to off-site reactors. While the CO2 sources may vary, the company plans to eventually use only one source for electricity.

“As we contemplate how to make green hydrocarbons possible, we took a look at how to do it with one of the most elemental forms of energy: direct sunlight.”

Jason Salfi, co-founder and CEO of Dimensional

Dimensional Energy aims to power its systems with sunlight collected through technology developed by the renewable energy company Heliogen, which harvests concentrated sunlight through an array of computer-controlled mirrors. 

“If we produced electricity on site with concentrated solar, [we] could take care of all the electricity needs for our process, and remove the burden from the grid to make green fuels happen,” Salfi told Freethink.

Since 2014, Dimensional Energy has received funding from the National Science Foundation, Shell’s GameChanger program, and private investors. In 2020, Dimensional Energy conducted its largest-ever system test in Wyoming as part of the Carbon X Prize competition, which incentivizes the creation of new technologies for converting CO2 emissions into valuable products. The 60-day trial was a success, demonstrating not only that the technology works, but also that it could soon be cost competitive with traditional fuels. 

“We proved to ourselves and our investors that CO2 utilization can be profitable and provide a net benefit, over status quo,” Salfi told Ladderworks. “Analysts from the private sector research institutions and the United Nations all agree that CO2 utilization is necessary to ward off the worst effects of climate change, and that CO2 utilization will activate a trillion-dollar sector of our economy.”

Making synthetic fuel affordable

Dimensional Energy is one of a growing number of companies working to slow climate change by making industries more sustainable and fuel-efficient. The most effective way to do that, according to Dimensional Energy, is by making products that are good for both the environment and the bottom line. 

“What you need to do is apply the same logic that brought the scale and velocity to our economy over the last century to a renewable form of energy production and not just chip away at the niche sides of things and sell renewable fuels at a premium,” Salfi told Freethink.

Still, reaching price parity with traditional fossil fuels will take time and scaling. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that the average cost of aviation fuel ranged between about $1.50 and $2 per gallon from January 2020 to January 2021. The results from Dimensional Energy’s 2020 pilot program suggest the company may soon be competing with those prices, if scaling up goes smoothly. 

“We could quickly see ourselves going at the 100-barrel-per-day [rate] of $4 per gallon, and then the 1,000-barrel-per-day at $1.60 per gallon,” Salfi told Freethink. “So you could see that we could quickly decarbonize an entire industry.” 

Dimensional Energy’s approach to decarbonization could help drastically reduce the environmental damage caused by the aviation industry, which accounts for 2% of human-induced CO2 emissions worldwide. 

Artificial photosynthesis techniques could make the aviation industry carbon neutral, defined as capturing as much carbon as gets emitted. What’s more, the hydrocarbons produced by Dimensional Energy’s systems could also be used to produce other products, such as plastics or other types of fuel. 

The technology continues to prove itself. Now it’s a matter of scaling up production to see whether modern decarbonization techniques can compete — or collaborate — with the fossil-fuel corporations that dominated the 21st century. 

“If we can create fossil fuels at cost parity, it would be one of the largest industries to ever emerge in such a short period of time,” Salfi told Freethink. “This is what we need to have future generations enjoy the planet just as we have.”

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