Like a tree, an ESCU professor is hoping people can create fuel from carbon dioxide

ECSU professor Bijandra Kumar will work on converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel using the power of sunlight. Here he sits in his office with a small piece of laboratory equipment that will be part of the testing efforts.

A professor at Elizabeth City State University is working on converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel using the power of the sun.

In the next three years, Bijandra Kumar and his students plan to build a prototype device about the size of a riding lawnmower that can convert carbon dioxide and water into fuels such as methanol, a possible replacement for gasoline.

The process fueled by sunlight could power the electrochemical reaction much like a leaf produces energy for a tree, except it would work much faster.

Solar farms are going up everywhere to harness the sun’s energy, but a major problem is storing the power so that it can be used at night or on cloudy days. Converting solar energy into liquid fuel that can be stored like gasoline would solve the dilemma.

“No industry is presently producing liquid fuels from CO2, regardless of the involvement of solar or other energy sources,” National Science Foundation spokesman Michael England said in an email. “But many industries and many academic labs are working very hard on this problem.”

One key is using the right catalyst for the chemical reaction, Kumar said.

Catalysts used so far such as gold, silver or copper are expensive and inefficient, said Kumar, a professor in the department of mathematics, computer science and engineering technology. The metals require multiple steps to convert CO2 to methanol, he said.

Kumar and his students will test different types of materials called MXenes which could facilitate conversion in one step through an electrochemical reaction, he said. The two-dimensional materials have characteristics like ceramics and metal with a wide range of uses, according to nanowerk.com.

Other institutions are also testing different catalysts, but ECSU could be the only place testing MXenes, he said.

“We want to find out which catalyst works best,” Kumar said.

ECSU received a grant in January for $207,600 from Qatar University to run the tests. Kumar will first work on a small scale in the laboratory before building the device.

Kumar worked with a professor in the energy conversion field while in France a few years ago. The professor, now at Qatar University, contacted Kumar to collaborate on this project, including issuing the grant.

ECSU also received $20,000 from NASA/North Carolina Space Grant and $176,828 from the National Science Foundation to buy equipment for his research.

ECSU students will for the first time work with materials on the level of 100 nanometers or less, a science called nanotechnology. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.

This research and practical application could lead to localized energy production. A ship at sea could use solar power and a conversion device to produce its own fuel, Kumar said. The technology could also recycle polluting carbons to make more fuel.

“We could close the carbon loop,” he said.

Kumar’s research is part of the school’s plans to establish a center where faculty from different fields would focus on materials research geared toward defense and energy. Materials research works to improve the function of all kinds of technology ranging from spaceships to computer chips.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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