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MIT, Harvard team develops efficient process to convert CO2 to formate

Researchers at MIT and Harvard University have developed an efficient process that can convert carbon dioxide into formate, a liquid or solid material that can be used like hydrogen or methanol to power a fuel cell and generate electricity. Potassium or sodium formate, already produced at industrial scales and commonly used as a de-icer for roads and sidewalks, is nontoxic, nonflammable, easy to store and transport, and can remain stable in ordinary steel tanks to be used months, or even years, after its production.


Zhang et al.

The new process, developed by MIT doctoral students Zhen Zhang, Zhichu Ren, and Alexander H. Quinn; Harvard University doctoral student Dawei Xi; and MIT Professor Ju Li, is described this week in an open-access paper in Cell Reports Physical Science.

The whole process—including capture and electrochemical conversion of the gas to a solid formate powder, which is then used in a fuel cell to produce electricity—was demonstrated at a small, laboratory scale. However, the researchers expect it to be scalable so that it could provide emissions-free heat and power to individual homes and even be used in industrial or grid-scale applications.

Other approaches to converting carbon dioxide into fuel, Li explains, usually involve a two-stage process: First the gas is chemically captured and turned into a solid form as calcium carbonate, then later that material is heated to drive off the carbon dioxide and convert it to a fuel feedstock such as carbon monoxide. That second step has very low efficiency, typically converting less than 20% of the gaseous carbon dioxide into the desired product, Li says.

By contrast, the new process achieves a conversion of well over 90% and eliminates the need for the inefficient heating step by first converting the carbon dioxide into an intermediate form, liquid metal bicarbonate. That liquid is then electrochemically converted into liquid potassium or sodium formate in an electrolyzer that uses low-carbon electricity, e.g. nuclear, wind, or solar power. The highly concentrated liquid potassium or sodium formate solution produced can then be dried, for example by solar evaporation, to produce a solid powder that is highly stable and can be stored in ordinary steel tanks for up to years or even decades, Li says.

Several steps of optimization developed by the team made all the difference in changing an inefficient chemical-conversion process into a practical solution, says Li, who holds joint appointments in the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and of Materials Science and Engineering.

The process of carbon capture and conversion involves first an alkaline solution-based capture that concentrates carbon dioxide, either from concentrated streams such as from power plant emissions or from very low-concentration sources, even open air, into the form of a liquid metal-bicarbonate solution. Then, through the use of a cation-exchange membrane electrolyzer, this bicarbonate is electrochemically converted into solid formate crystals with a carbon efficiency of greater than 96%, as confirmed in the team’s lab-scale experiments.

These crystals have an indefinite shelf life, remaining so stable that they could be stored for years, or even decades, with little or no loss. By comparison, even the best available practical hydrogen storage tanks allow the gas to leak out at a rate of about 1% per day, precluding any uses that would require year-long storage.

Methanol, another widely explored alternative for converting carbon dioxide into a fuel usable in fuel cells, is a toxic substance that cannot easily be adapted to use in situations where leakage could pose a health hazard. Formate, on the other hand, is widely used and considered benign, according to national safety standards.

Several improvements account for the greatly improved efficiency of this process. First, a careful design of the membrane materials and their configuration overcomes a problem that previous attempts at such a system have encountered, where a buildup of certain chemical byproducts changes the pH, causing the system to steadily lose efficiency over time.

Traditionally, it is difficult to achieve long-term, stable, continuous conversion of the feedstocks. The key to our system is to achieve a pH balance for steady-state conversion.

—Zhen Zhang

To achieve that, the researchers carried out thermodynamic modeling to design the new process so that it is chemically balanced and the pH remains at a steady state with no shift in acidity over time. It can therefore continue operating efficiently over long periods. In their tests, the system ran for over 200 hours with no significant decrease in output. The whole process can be done at ambient temperatures and relatively low pressures (about five times atmospheric pressure).

Another issue was that unwanted side reactions produced other chemical products that were not useful, but the team figured out a way to prevent these side reactions by the introduction of an extra buffer layer of bicarbonate-enriched fiberglass wool that blocked these reactions.

The team also built a fuel cell specifically optimized for the use of this formate fuel to produce electricity. The stored formate particles are simply dissolved in water and pumped into the fuel cell as needed. Although the solid fuel is much heavier than pure hydrogen, when the weight and volume of the high-pressure gas tanks needed to store hydrogen is considered, the end result is an electricity output near parity for a given storage volume, Li says.

The formate fuel can potentially be adapted for anything from home-sized units to large scale industrial uses or grid-scale storage systems, the researchers say. Initial household applications might involve an electrolyzer unit about the size of a refrigerator to capture and convert the carbon dioxide into formate, which could be stored in an underground or rooftop tank. Then, when needed, the powdered solid would be mixed with water and fed into a fuel cell to provide power and heat.


  • Zhen Zhang, Dawei Xi, Zhichu Ren, Ju Li (2023) “A carbon-efficient bicarbonate electrolyzer” Cell Reports Physical Science doi: 10.1016/j.xcrp.2023.101662



'At scale, our strategy fits well into the global framework of carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS). Various alkali basalt mineral rocks, containing CaO, MgO, SiO2, Na2O, and K2O, were found in abundance on Earth and used for enhanced weathering.25 They are efficient for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and would form carbonates and bicarbonates.25,26 The insoluble components could be separated and buried for carbon sequestration, while the soluble components, containing potassium, sodium, and calcium, etc., with our method, could be converted electrochemically into energy-rich metal-formate fuels (Figure 1G) for seasonal energy storage. A direct formate fuel cell (DFFC) possesses a high volumetric energy density (53g H2 per liter) and high specific energy density (2.13 kWh kg−1, more than 5 times that of the state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries).'

What I can't figure out from the info given, is what the energy as opposed to the carbon efficiency is.


Roger Brown

The authors write:

"Thus, the combined carbon efficiency and energy efficiency of CO2 capture and electroreduction, through the traditional route with solid CaCO3 and ultra-pure gaseous CO2, is very low."

As an alternative they propose:

Air Capture: KOH(aq) ==> KHCO3(aq)

Electrolysis: KHCO3(aq) ==> KOOCH + 1/2O2

Fuel Cell: HCOO(-)+ 1/2O2+ OH(-) ==> CO3(2-)+ H2O E°= 1.45 V

The fuel cell formula can be found at The fuel cell formula shows only the negative ions. Naturally there are K+ and H+ ions as well. Therefore when all of the formate has been consumed you are left with a tankful of KHCO3(aq). In this case you could just regenerate the KOOCH from the KHCO3 and skip the air capture. The problem is that if you want seasonal energy storage as the authors suggest then you would have to wait months before you do the regeneration. Storing many month's supply of an aqueous solution of KHCO3 is probably not economically feasible. In order for such a system to work you have to some way of precipitating the KHCO3 as a solid. In any event I think that there has to be some way of recycling the potassium in order for the economics to work.

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