Lush green lawns in front of the old, dignified walls of the colleges with the Cam flowing smoothly between them. At the edge of Cambridge, UK, a traditional university town, seven young chemists are researching the efficient use of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) for future mobility.
The day is overcast. And at first we also struggle to find clarity in the fog of complex chemical processes that will economically extract syngas. Luckily the young English chemist David Wakerley and his Austrian colleague Manuela Groß are able to help out. They are part of an international seven-person team led by Dr. Erwin Reisner, head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable Syngas Chemistry. The “Reisner Lab” has been sponsored by OMV since 2012 as an industrial partner.
Today, syngas – a gas mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen – is extracted from fossil fuels in a non-renewable process. We are working on a sustainable, ‘green’ option that will utilize sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into syngas.
Green future in a test tube
Erwin Reisner and his team are pioneers who know that their research could make an important contribution to a carbon-based renewable energy economy. For example, syngas can already be converted into liquid fuel like gasoline or diesel. It is also a widely used chemical raw material, making it important for the petrochemicals industry. The process of extracting syngas also yields hydrogen (H2), which can be used in the fuel cell of a hydrogen car to produce energy.
At this point, a future scenario can be imagined:
Who knows, maybe we will all be driving with green fuels produced from sunlight in 2050. The potential for the commercial use of sustainable syngas technology is enormous.
This exciting field of research calls for an exceptionally creative approach – and a lot of patience. In this video you can find out more about David Wakerley’s hunt for “solar fuel”, the fuel from water, CO2, and sunlight:
David’s ambitious project – the Stop-Motion film on the Reisner Lab, which was made during the idle periods waiting for various research results, has been finished recently and is also something of a masterpiece in patience: The scenery and the “actors” consist of around 2,000 Lego bricks, which were photographed in 10,000 individual images and then pieced together into a film.
Living and researching in Cambridge
The hierarchies are flat and the researchers are young and full of ideas. At the historic Cambridge University– founded in 1209 – the most advanced projects are being researched. Interdisciplinary work and friendly cooperation define the atmosphere in the Christian Doppler Laboratory at Cambridge. The young researchers have come together from Taiwan, Korea, Germany, Canada, England, and Austria.
I really like the thought of researching such a future-oriented subject here. And we also enjoy spending time together outside the lab. Sometimes the lines between work and leisure time are blurred. And that’s a good thing, because for some chemical processes there’s no such thing as a weekend.
In our video you can see Manuela and her colleague Georgina explain precisely the chemical processes involved, why photosynthesis is at the heart of the project – and how you spend time while once again waiting for the results of the highly complex experiments:
Since 1904 Cambridge University has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other university in the world – including one female and 21 male chemists. Even though quite a bit more water will have to flow down the Cam before carbon dioxide can be made efficiently usable, it’s good to know that this important project is in the best hands – and heads.
You can get to know three more members of the Reisner Lab: Jenny and Ben are into producing hydrogen and climbing steep walls, while Moritz is looking for a suitable catalyst to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide – or for the right screwdriver.
- Syngas is a gaseous mix of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2).
- The Reisner Lab is committed to the ecological and economical production of syngas and is pursuing the approach of converting it in a renewable and carbon-dioxide (CO2)-neutral process with the help of solar energy.
- However, this process only makes ecological sense if the syngas is not produced from fossil fuels, as it has been until now, but instead from carbon dioxide and water (CO2 and H2O). The inspiration comes from the biochemical processes of photosynthesis in plants, where the enzymes that act as a catalyst in this process produce hydrogen (H2) and convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbon monoxide (CO). Out of H2 and CO the plants synthetise carbonhydrids and release O2 (oxygen) to the air.
- Making these synthetic catalysts for syngas production is one of the team’s greatest scientific challenges.
- The use of CO2 is still a relatively new scientific subject. Erwin Reisner and his team are doing fundamental research in this field. OMV, the only industrial partner, is providing 50 percent of the funding for the research project, which has been underway since 2012.
- OMV’s commitment to establishing the energy cycles of the future and finding innovative win-win solutions is an important building block on the road to reducing greenhouse gases by 2050.