Capturing and converting CO2
It is ironic that carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas which threatens our world, is made up of just carbon and oxygen, two elements that pose no threat to us when separate. Imagine if we could break CO2 back down into its harmless building blocks instead of pumping billions of tonnes of it into the atmosphere every year.
Dr Raymond Whitby, from the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, has taken the first steps to find a new way of disposing of the waste from power stations.
Dr Whitby is working on an idea that under certain conditions, a laser can be fired at carbon dioxide, causing it to separate into oxygen, which can be released into the atmosphere, and carbon, which can be used for industrial processes.
The system could be a good alternative to the current method for getting rid of unwanted CO2 which concentrates it and pumps it into the underground water systems. This acidifies the water, killing life in it, and runs the risk that if an earthquake or other geological catastrophe should occur this could release the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Other ideas for making CO2 safe have not proved satisfactory so far.
Dr Whitby believes his system is possible because the CO2 would not need to be compressed to pressures beyond those found in engines or laboratories, and the laser, firing ultraviolet light, would not need to be enormously powerful; the conversion itself could be conducted at room temperatures. He hopes that the energy for these processes could come from solar panels.
Dr Whitby, who worked on the research at Toyo University near Tokyo before transferring his idea to the University of Brighton, has already demonstrated that the idea can work on the small scale. He converted a matchboxsized container of CO2 into carbon and oxygen, proving it is possible in principle. In its final form the system would involve bolting pressure chambers onto power stations and large factories so that their CO2 waste could immediately be compressed and converted.
Dr Whitby is now talking to businesses and applying for grants to take the research project, called RoCOCO (Reduction of Critically Opalescent CO2) forward. He hopes that the process will be able to convert a significant amount of CO2 now being emitted.
"It will be vitally important if it works because it would be a technology that could effectively solve the problem of greenhouse gas pollution," said Dr Whitby. "Especially given that some countries are reluctant to change their energy consumption and would clearly prefer to spend their way to a technological solution instead. However, there is a long way to go to see if this idea proves viable."
Dr Whitby’s work won him a share of the 2008 Staff Innovation Award at the university, with Professor Andy Cundy, from the university's School of Environment and Technology, and Professor Toru Maekawa of Toyo University who have also worked on the idea.
Find out more
Visit the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences website.