Design contest winner mimics photosynthesis to convert CO2 to liquid fuel

HI-LIGHT Solar Thermal Chemical Reactor uses a proprietary nanotechnology process that mimics plant photosynthesis that converts carbon emissions into a clean energy resource. Image: Dimensional Energy

Aiming to reduce global CO2 emissions, a research team from Cornell University and Dimensional Energy of Ithaca, New York, have invented a way to cost-efficiently convert waste carbon dioxide into valuable, clean liquid fuel.

Their HI-LIGHT Solar Thermal Chemical Reactor, which uses proprietary nanotechnology in a process that mimics plant photosynthesis, has been awarded a grand prize of $20,000 in the 2017 "Create the Future" Design Contest.

HI-LIGHT was among 1,150 new product ideas submitted in the 15th annual design contest, which was established in 2002 to recognize and reward engineering innovations that benefit humanity, the environment, and the economy. This year's contest was co-sponsored by COMSOL, Inc and Mouser Electronics. Analog Devices and Intel were supporting sponsors.

"This recognition is not for our team alone, but for the general science community to fight against climate change and push forward renewable energy research," team leader Elvis Cao, a PhD student at Cornell University, said in a statement.

The team is also among those competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20 million competition for new technology to maximize the value of CO2 sponsored by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance and integrated power company NRG Energy, Inc.

The team is working to develop solar-thermocatalytic “reverse combustion” technology that enables the conversion of CO2 and water into high value hydrocarbons.

It brings together two technologies that were developed at Cornell University: advanced nano-engineered catalyst materials functionalized with ligands to enhance CO2 capture and conversion, and advanced photoreactors improving light and fluid delivery.

According to the Carbon XPRIZE website, the reactor uses waveguides to distribute light within the reactor interior, ensuring that all catalyst material has enough light to activate the reaction. It also uses parts of the solar spectrum that are not useful for photocatalysis to provide heat, enhancing the reaction efficiency by working at elevated temperatures.

By combining these advantages with novel nanostructured and functionalized inorganic photocatalysts, the team’s goal through the XPRIZE competition is to prove the transformative nature of its integrated technologies by demonstrating an order of magnitude improvement over the current state of the art.