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Thread: This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

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    This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

    Researchers from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, have developed an "artificial leaf" that has the potential to turn carbon emissions into a source of biofuel.
    The post This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel appeared first on Universe Today.


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    We see these sort of academic papers several times a year (the UT article itself mentions a couple of earlier ones), but I've yet to see one become a commercially viable process. Making the leap from a laboratory curiosity to a commercially viable process at an industrial scale is difficult, and unfortunately these kinds of "ra-ra, we just fixed climate change" articles severely underplay that.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    We see these sort of academic papers several times a year (the UT article itself mentions a couple of earlier ones), but I've yet to see one become a commercially viable process. Making the leap from a laboratory curiosity to a commercially viable process at an industrial scale is difficult, and unfortunately these kinds of "ra-ra, we just fixed climate change" articles severely underplay that.
    I agree, but I've always wondered WHY these breakthroughs don't ever translate into actual change, or into an actual product that we can start using. For example, with this one in particular what is it that you think will prevent this from becoming usable on a large scale? Because we know for a fact this is possible (plants do this all the time), and these guys claim to have figured it out, so unless they are lying why wouldn't this become widespread within 5-10 years? It certainly does sound too good to be true.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave241 View Post
    I agree, but I've always wondered WHY these breakthroughs don't ever translate into actual change, or into an actual product that we can start using. For example, with this one in particular what is it that you think will prevent this from becoming usable on a large scale? Because we know for a fact this is possible (plants do this all the time), and these guys claim to have figured it out, so unless they are lying why wouldn't this become widespread within 5-10 years? It certainly does sound too good to be true.
    Well, I can make a couple of comments about this. Regarding the specific paper, the issue that I see (and I'm just guessing as a relative layperson) that it is useful for a situation (like an engine) where you have concentrated CO2, but to remove CO2 from the air is difficult because it's not concentrated and is at a quite low concentration. So getting the CO2 isolated from the rest of the air is not so easy.

    And in general, I think that what happens is, there are lots of journals out there, all competing for attention, so they tend to accept even very incremental findings, and then the researchers want attention so they have press releases that say "a first step toward..." You see so, so many of those. And if you don't read carefully it's easy to think they have created something really impressive but then when you look at the details it's not so clear. And I'm saying this in general, not about this specific paper.

    And then the other thing is, it's not true that they "don't ever translate into actual change," because actually sometimes they do. We do in fact have superconductors and photovoltaic cells, which were once just breakthroughs on paper. Sometimes it takes a long time to perfect them into something that is commercially viable though.
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    And then just to illustrate the point, I just came across this press release. It's not deceptive or anything, so I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it, but if you don't look at the details it looks very exciting. It's still important, but basically the reworked some calculations and discovered that what was thought to be a huge problem may not be as big as it was thought to be. They haven't actually found a way, but made a discovery that could help find a better way to split water. I've been told by journalists that they tend not to pay attention to press releases that have words like "step forward in..." without making clear what the actual step is, so I usually try to avoid it, but sometimes I myself write press releases that read a bit that way.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave241 View Post
    I agree, but I've always wondered WHY these breakthroughs don't ever translate into actual change, or into an actual product that we can start using. For example, with this one in particular what is it that you think will prevent this from becoming usable on a large scale? Because we know for a fact this is possible (plants do this all the time), and these guys claim to have figured it out, so unless they are lying why wouldn't this become widespread within 5-10 years? It certainly does sound too good to be true.
    I can't say for sure for this paper. I think Jens covered some possible reasons. The issue of concentrated CO2 streams, versus highly dilute ones (like the atmosphere) is certainly one of the fundamental problems with all the CO2 conversion ideas.

    Very often a big problem is scale-up. Making a gram of something, or a single little "leaf", is one thing. Scaling it up so that one can make tons of it for an economically viable cost is another.

    I know for the copper oxide superconductors it took about a decade to develop the technology to make even a meter or two of cable from them.

    The argument that plants/nature already does this has one fundamental flaw - yes, nature can do it, but nature isn't trying to get the outputs/efficiencies that humans require for our energy-intense operations. For example, mother nature uses photosynthesis to make plants, which die, get buried in the ground, and over thousands or millions of years, those plants become oil, gas, or coal. And in a little over a hundred years, humans managed to use up a lot of those thousands of years of chemically stored solar energy.

    So, humans have to duplicate these processes, but at much higher levels of throughput and efficiency if we want a carbon-neutral process.
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