As the Renewable Newstead project powers (pun intended!) ahead – and there will be more about that in another post – the world is also moving on.

As you may know from previous posts (one, two) this writer sees that the prospect of generating liquid fuels using the CO2 from the atmosphere changes an awful lot. Perhaps I should start by saying why.

Cars, boats and more importantly aeroplanes all depend on liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Petrol products really pack an enormous punch in terms of the amount of energy stored by a kilogram of “stuff”. Particularly for planes, it is quite unlikely that there will ever be a battery invented that will make the grade in terms of power and weight. Does this mean that a future, zero carbon world will not include air transport? Not if the making fuel from current CO2 nut can be cracked.

Photosynthesis is behind this. Now, and in the primordial forests that oil wells tap, plants eagerly basked in the sun, sucked up water, and produced what now powers planes. If we could do the same in the lab, not to mention the factory or back yard, we could continue flying, for example.

What then is the magics of photosynthesis? Eons of evolution has figured out a way for a rather tricky chemical reaction to take place. Simply saying that carbon dioxide plus water equals a fuel hydrocarbon is simple. A high school chemistry student could write that equation. The question is how, at the atomic/molecular/energy level to make this reaction happen. That is the question that was asked about many of the chemical reactions that now routinely happen in factories to produce this or that.

The answer is, nearly always, a catalyst. A catalyst is a chemical that does not actually get involved in the big picture chemical reaction. The catalyst somehow provides a pathway for something to happen much more easily. Without a catalyst a lot more heat or pressure would be required. Evolution solved that problem and now it is our turn.

The first two posts described lab work that approaches the problem from a “chemistry lab” point of view. This development comes much closer to photosynthesis but, believe it or not, actually does it bettter!