Kiwi and Chinese scientists achieve 'breakthrough' system to convert carbon dioxide into fuel

If we could only convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into fuel, that would be a huge leap forward in the fight against global warming.

In what's been hailed a breakthrough, Kiwi and Chinese scientists have developed a system they hope will be able to do exactly that.

Eventually, the process could be used to not only reduce emissions, but to bolster New Zealand's fuel security by allowing the country to produce its own fuel from recycled CO2.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it is unequivocal - human activities have warmed the planet, resulting in more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

But the damage humans are causing, they might be able to undo. 

"This field has so much possibility to change our society," Auckland University computational chemist Dr Ziyun Wang said.

Dr Wang is part of a team of scientists from Auckland University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, who have developed a system that converts carbon dioxide into useful chemicals.

It's a world first because it can operate continuously for more than 5000 hours without failure, and for that reason could be commercialised.

"The CO2 is not a liability in the future if becomes some useful chemicals, and if that's the case, I hope if it can make money, then CO2 won't be an issue anymore," Dr Wang said.

Auckland University computational chemist Dr Ziyun Wang.
Auckland University computational chemist Dr Ziyun Wang. Photo credit: Newshub

The carbon dioxide can be captured from either the atmosphere or from the flue gas of industrial plants.

It's then put through a process which applies electricity to change the properties of the chemical, then hydrogen is added which produces formic acid.

That can then be converted into energy to fuel our cars and other electronics.

Eventually it's hoped the process will also be able to produce methanol or ethanol, which is currently produced mostly using fossil fuels.

There's another benefit - the electrolyte used in the new process can be sourced directly from spent lead batteries. That's significant because many electric vehicles carry them.

"We find the most affordable source which is basically free or someone will pay you to deal with that, which is a wasted battery," Dr Wang said.

Dr Wang said this technology could be especially useful in New Zealand because we rely on imported refined fuel, and supply can easily be disrupted by geopolitical conflicts or a global pandemic.

"If we can convert CO2 into fuel we can produce the fuel in this country with renewable energy," Dr Wang said.

This technology is still in its infancy and the biggest challenge will be how to effectively capture CO2 - but it's hoped advances like this could slow the planet's rapid warming.