A project is to be undertaken by scientists at the University of Aberdeen that aims to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons using a plasma electrolyser.

Announced today (March 31st), the £250,000 energy transition project could enable the use of renewable energy to revolutionise approaches to decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry. 

One of ten key net zero-by-2050 energy projects announced today by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the study – Electrocatalysis in non-thermal plasma for energy storage – is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

To convert CO2 into hydrocarbons to be used as energy, the team create an electrochemical reaction by applying a voltage between two electrodes in a weakly ionised gas. 

Resulting in the reduction of CO2 and the oxidation of hydrogen, renewable energy could be generated by this combination of plasma-catalysis and electrocatalysis. 

This energy – generated by renewable sources – could then be used to power a plasma electrolyser, which would convert CO2 back to hydrocarbons. 

To advance efficient energy storage and the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate sectors such as cement or steel production, the team intends to build a prototype device. 

Commenting on the research, Professor Angel Cuesta Ciscar said, “The energy transition requires technologies for efficiency energy storage and conversion or to enable the decarbonisation of industrial processes, and this is where electrochemical processes can play a crucial role.” 

Although these methods are energy efficient, Ciscar added that they are often still not efficient enough to overcome cost barriers. 

This can be overcome via the electrochemical process. 

“This combination of plasma-catalysis and electrocatalysis has the potential to enable efficient conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbons driven by renewable electricity, thereby contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases and to a fairer and more sustainable transition to net zero,” she explained. 

The project – if successful – would represent a world-first and could play a crucial role in the creation of a circular fuel economy. 

Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair, EPSRC, praised the projects announced in UKRI’s statement, stating that the variety of radical approaches offer a sustainable, cost-effective and fair transition to net zero.