Alternative Fuels Generated from Electricity

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A new study found that there may be a future where one can use electricity to power the car, even if is not an electric vehicle. This was found through the research conducted at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The process involves conversion of carbon dioxide into liquid fuel isobutanol through electrolysis. Electrolysis though involves high volumes of electricity. This though cannot be done as current battery technology, with chemical batteries still unable to provide the needs of the process. Furthermore, the technological requisites remain incompatible with the platforms used for actual transportation.

The study was published last March 30 in the journal Science. The team was headed by James Liao, the Chairman for the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation for Chemical Engineering for UCLA. They were able to found the process wherein electrical energy can be stored in higher alcohols, which in turn can be utilized as liquid transportation fuels for cars of the future.

According to Liao, “The current way to store electricity is with lithium ion batteries in which density is low, but when you store it in liquid fuel, the density could actually be very high. In addition, we have the potential to use electricity as transportation fuel without needing to change current infrastructure.”

The UCLA research team had engineered a lithoautotrophic microorganism that is known scientifically as Ralstonia Eutropha H16. The cells would produce isobutanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol in a bioreactor. Carbon dioxide would be added as the sole carbon source with electricity as the singular energy input.

What the process does is similar to photosynthesis, which is the process of converting light energy into chemical energy stored as sugar. The two process involved has two steps, namely light reaction and a dark reaction. The light reaction would convert light energy into chemical energy and light must be present. On the other hand, the dark reaction would convert CO2 into sugar and need not be done with light present.

Liao added, “We’ve been able to separate the light reaction from the dark reaction and instead of using biological photosynthesis, we are using solar panels to convert the sunlight to electrical energy, then to a chemical intermediate and using that to power carbon dioxide fixation to produce the fuel. This method could be more efficient than the biological system.”

He added, “Instead of using hydrogen, we use formic acid as the intermediary. We use electricity to generate formic acid and then use the formic acid to power the CO2 fixation in bacteria in the dark to produce isobutanol and higher alcohols.”