Yue is working on a device called the solid-oxide electrolysis cell. Running at a temperature of 600-1000ᵒ, these cells would use renewable energy to split carbon dioxide or steam to produce carbon monoxide or hydrogen respectively. A mixture of these, known as syngas, is used routinely by the petrochemical industry. It can be used as a fuel, or as the raw material for chemical products which today come from petroleum.
Chemicals and fuels from carbon dioxide conversion, says Yue, will have lower environmental impacts than those from today’s combustion-based technologies. She adds that it is possible to generate electricity by running the solid oxide electrolysis cell backwards, to generate electricity and heat when needed. This process could use biomass. hydrogen, carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons.
But there are scientific questions to be resolved. One is to replace the nickel-based catalysts used to accelerate the high-temperature synthesis of carbon monoxide with more effective alternatives.
Yue says that her research may make use of the university’s Eden Mill campus, a large research site outside St Andrews. It has a large renewable energy installation, plus a nearby distillery which produces plentiful carbon dioxide. These could be used in an industrial-scale test of the technology.
Photo credit: Chris Leboutillier