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Alliance Formed to Commercialize Solar Reforming Technologies to Convert Waste CO2 into Synthetic Fuel

Sandia has been working on “Sunshine to Petrol” technologies for a number of years. Source: Sandia. Click to enlarge.

An alliance of industry, academic and government organizations has formed to commercialize technologies that will utilize concentrated solar energy to convert waste CO2 into synthetic fuels. (Earlier post.)

The alliance team members include Sandia National Laboratories, Renewable Energy Institute International (REII), Pacific Renewable Fuels, Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne (a United Technologies Division), Quanta Services, Desert Research Institute and Clean Energy Systems. In addition, commercial partners have signed on to advance work on the first round of commercial plants.

“The alliance team members believe that the best way to accomplish CO2 reduction goals is to commercialize platforms that will utilize CO2 as a carbon feedstock for the production of valuable products, such as diesel fuel.”
—Dr. Dennis Schuetzle, president of REII

The project team has received a first phase of funding from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to demonstrate these technologies.

The solar reforming technology platform will be co-located next to industrial facilities that have waste CO2 streams such as coal power plants, natural gas processing facilities, ethanol plants, cement production facilities and other stationary sources of CO2.

Sandia began working on research, development and demonstration of solar reforming technologies more than 20 years ago. We are pleased for the opportunity to extend these concepts in a public/private partnership that we expect will accelerate commercialization to accomplish our joint goals of CO2 emissions reduction and domestic fuel production.

—Ellen Stechel, recycling CO2 program development lead for Sandia National Laboratories

In August 2009, at an ACS meeting symposium focused on the conversion and utilization of CO2 for fuels and chemicals, Sandia researches noted that significant advances have been made in the field of solar thermochemical CO2-splitting technologies utilizing yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ)-supported ferrite composites. (Earlier post.)

A solar reforming system is currently being demonstrated in Sacramento, Calif., and demonstrations will continue both at Sandia’s facilities in New Mexico and at a power plant project site in Bakersfield, Calif. Planning for the first round of commercial plants is under way at several locations in the US The project team anticipates that deployment of the first commercial plants can begin in 2013.



A long range project that may produce Jet fuel for our grand children flights?.


This could very fast become economical. Direct conversion from heat to chemicals (without intermediate electricity production) could reach very high efficiencies if the right catalysts are found. Mass-production of the mirrors could make them extremely cheap. The catalysts they talk about use abundant and cheap elements.
The productivity per acre will anyway be many times higher than even the best immaginable algae, and of course many times more easy to handle, extremely stable (even compared to algae) and you have directly the desired chemicals. I am very pro-algae because they will have to replace large part of traditional agriculture, but in the long run, the way to go for chemicals (and fuel) is direct solar-to-chemicals.


You need H2 and an SOFC concentrated solar thermal unit can do that. Use that with this and you could make methane or methanol. Gasify coal, biomass or just use the excess CO2. Using the coal plant CO2 makes sense, you go where that is, the sun is portable.


I'm all for converting flu gas into hydrocarbon fuels, or other useful products, but I thought algae was far more efficient at using sun light to lock up emissions than synthetic photosynthesis.


In a way you use the CO2 twice which could cut the emissions in half, otherwise it would just go out the smoke stack and tailpipe, now it just goes out the tailpipe.


Some of the proposed uses for this concept are ridiculous. Convert CO2 from a coal plant into fuel? It will take more energy to make something out of CO2 from a coal powerplant than it generates as electricity. If you have that energy, why burn the coal in the first place?

If you can store CO2 from cement production (or make cement with solar heat), that makes sense.


I was not aware that such technologies even existed to even be commercialized.

What are they now – lab curiosities? Militarized?

But if they do, it makes sense to assume they might be much more efficient than solar to electricity.

Of course we "have" the energy – but only if you mean raining down, 99.9999% unused (?), from the sky.

This will use more of it to convert CO2 into “petrochemicals”.

An easy decision – IF such technologies are even remotely ready to be commercialized.


It is going with what we have, 600 coal fired power plants are not going to be replaced over night. If you gasify the coal and use IGCC you have the carbon before you burn. Turning it into fuel for cars makes sense because we have millions of cars and would like to reduce imported oil.


The key is that they can use CO2 and not just CO. CO can be gas shifted with water to make more H2 and produce CO2. With the H2 and the extra CO from coal gasification, you can make more CH4 methane for the combined cycle power plant.

Now you can use the CO2 from the IGCC for liquid fuels for more than 100 million cars. Biomass can make more CO2 neutral fuels, but there is a limit and after that you use the CO2 twice.

While you are at it, use the heat of condensation to ferment and distill cellulose ethanol. No sense letting heat go to waste. If you really want to stretch it, use the synthetic methane in an SOFC/gas turbine/steam turbine and get more power and free heat.


@Alain - You are completely right! Except for how you use the term "catalysts" - In the case of this process, the solid redox materials used are part of the reaction, for example they split CO2 or H2O to CO or H2 by oxidizing iron to iron oxide in one step (transferring the oxygen atom), then reduce the iron oxide back to iron in the high temperature step, releasing oxygen (they actually use mixed-metal oxides with iron and other metals, but this is just an example).

@HealthyBreeze - Synthetic photosynthesis type processes are much more efficient than natural photosynthesis. The best land-based biomass is around 1% efficient in sunlight-to-chemical energy and biofuels from traditional crops like corn are closer to 0.2%. I can provide references if desired (or just look it up). Even with commercially available photovoltaics (10-20% efficiency) and electrolyzers (60-80% efficiency) you are at 6-16% efficiency, so you will need about 1/10th the land of land-based biomass. Algae is a bit better but not as high as non-biological methods.

@Engineer-Poet - There are certainly better CO2 sources, such as aluminum and other industrial plants, and CO2 captured from the atmosphere (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=washing-carbon-out-of-the-air), but it is not completely ridiculous to use CO2 from a coal power plant. If you are running coal power plants you can either sequester the CO2 you have produced, or recycle it. To recycle it you obviously need renewable or nuclear energy. Solar electricity is not yet economical to replace the coal power plant. It is possible that their solar heat-driven process could be inexpensive enough to produce fuel (and would be competing with gasoline and biofuels, not with the electricity of the coal power plant). Heat is cheaper than electricity which is what attracts the researchers to such a process rather than electrolysis.

Finally, at this stage there is no reason to believe this process will ever become economical, but the research should continue until it is clear whether or not it could be.

richard schumacher

This is a good first step because it demonstrates and perfects the technology and distribution system for petroleum-free fuels. Ultimately the CO2 will be taken from the air to make true carbon-neutral fuels. We need to take that next step soon, because by about 2030 it will be essentially illegal to use coal in any form as fuel. (Hasten the day! I would today happily pay $6 per gallon for carbon-neutral artificial gasoline for my Prius.)

Dave Kelly

I looked at the feasibility of this several months ago –from the perspective of research investment. It does not look promising at all. The main problems are: very low conversion – roughly 5% and exceptionally high energy requirements.

The process also suffers from the usual problem of researchers failing to address H2 separation after conversion. It doesn’t do any good to get low conversion without an economical means of separating the “fuel” from the inerts/steam.

While I have worked with Sandia on other projects, at this stage I would place this “technology" firmly in the snake oil category.

Will S

I'm with Engineer-Poet - what is the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI)? If waste heat can be used, supplemented with solar heat, then the equation may come out greater than unity, preferably higher than 2:1 (which it must to be minimally viable).


@Dave Kelly - I agree this does not appear to be the most feasible way to recycle CO2 into fuels. But that does not mean research should not continue on the process (you yourself should certainly not invest if it does not look promising; I do not plan to either).

@Will S - The EROEI is most likely similar to PV, e.g. high. You invest energy in building the system, then you collect free energy for its lifetime, which quickly "pays back" for the energy you invested. It will not use waste heat to run the system since it needs heat at 1400 oC or whatnot. Why would you need to use waste heat to come out greater than unity?


From an investment view this is too little too late. And as others note, the cost of energy inputs at this stage are far too high for commercialization.

It does flag again the rapidly approaching end of thermodynamic based energy production and its emission problems. We see a major move to non-thermal based energy systems that use well orchestrated tuning to simply and cleanly access the energy around us in abundance.

The conversion to electrification will hasten the end not only of petroleum and fossil fuels - but most combustion-based technologies.


The entire front end of the process shuts down every night. Consequently, the entire syngas train is in recycle mode most of the time. The intermediate product is mostly methanol, costing $1 per gallon made from natural gas. The economic viability is therefore questionable unless the process is government subsidized.


The method of syntrolysis has been discussed on this site before, you get an 800C heat source, CO2 and water to reform into synthesis gas. It remains to be seen if this would be cost effective, but Idaho National Lab seems to think it is.


After going back over the older posts, it looks like this scheme can convert oxidized carbon and hydrogen to reduced forms (H2 and CO, plus O2). I'm going to assume that the thermochemistry works. I realize that the ideal thing to do would be to use solar thermal engines to just replace the fossil fuels, but it looks like the intent of the scheme is to convert the effluent from cheap fuels (coal) to feedstock for much more valuable products (motor fuel). The CO and H2 could just be burned instead of coal or natural gas, but storage is an issue and that's not the most favorable product in today's market.


It seems to me that if you are going to gasify biomass you just gas shift to make more H2 to combine with the extra C0 to make more fuel. You do not need 1500F and lots of electricity.


Recycling CO2 instead of distributing it in the atmosphere has a growing value. If the value of the CO2 removed is factored in, the cost of the liquid fuel produced would be much lower.


That would be one of the factors. If you are going to use the CO from biomass, you could make more H2 and O2 from reversible SOFCs. That way you would not create the CO2 from gas shifting.

Henry Gibson

It would be interesting if there were a good way to make CO from CO2 and thermal energy that is easier than making Hydrogen from water and thermal energy. Carbon-Monoxide can be converted quickly into methanol which is easy to store and use in engines.

The people who are trying to promote solar energy rarely have any property to do it on. Solar energy is free but so is coal and oil. We just have to pay to collect it. This requires large tracts of land covered with some kind of equipment. No body seems to want to give up any land to anyone else even at a good price if they think that it is part of their tradition.

The price of making solar fuels of electricity is too high for an industrialized country.

In the 1960s The Sierra Club would not have tolerated for a minute vast tracts of large wind turbines. They now have to pretend that they are not clutterning up the natural environment because they want to pretend that renewable energy exists. Every bit of energy on the earth is nuclear energy at its source. The sun and other stars are just creating new atoms.


The U.S. government has lots of desert land in the Mojave and there are transmission lines to L.A. This is one reason that Kramer Junction was built and continues to operate.

We can use concentrated solar thermal to heat reversible SOFCs to make H2 and O2. You can get the electricity from concentrated PV at the same time and place. The fuel might cost $2 per gallon to make methanol, which right now is too high.

That would make more sense if we have DMFCs for cars that ran at 50% efficiency, but we do not. Many would say just put the electricity into transmission lines and into EV batteries and they would be right, as soon as we have 100 million EVs.

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