Here's an interesting idea: What if the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by power plants while they generate electricity could be converted into a source of additional electricity?
That's the idea behind a new paper published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Written by a team of researchers in the Netherlands, the paper describes how CO2 could be mixed with a fluid electrolyte, generating electrical energy in the process.
A press release from the American Chemical Society, which publishes the journal, calls this a "trash-to-treasure" story, saying it could help produce billions of kilowatts of energy every year while reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
The research was conducted at Wetsus, which describes itself as a center for excellence for sustainable water technology. The team forced CO2 into water and other fluids, where the carbon dioxide split into positive and negative ions. Two special membranes were placed on either side of the water, one of which the positive ions could pass through and another which the negative ions could pass through. This produced a flow of electrons between the two membranes which could be captured by an electrode. Voila, electricity.
The research to date is just a proof of concept, and it actually uses more electricity than it generates, but lead researcher Bert Hamelers told NBC News that it could be scaled up and there are alternative approaches that could flip that equation.
If truly scaled up to massive proportions, the researchers say this new process could help to use the 12 billion tons of CO2 released every year by burning coal, oil and natural gas to produce electricity (another 11 billion tons are generated by home and commercial heating). They say that using all of the CO2 from power plants, industrial factories and residences could generate more than 1.5 trillion kilowatts of electricity every year. That, according to the paper, is 400 times more energy than is generated annually by the Hoover Dam.
Of course, the process doesn't actually consume the CO2. It just puts it to use, so the carbon dioxide may still need to be captured in some way rather than released into the atmosphere. But Hamelers told NBC News that this process could put to use energy that would otherwise be wasted, making power plants and other facilities more efficient and allowing them to produce more electricity without increasing their levels of CO2 emissions.
Hamelers' previous research has covered topics such as microbial fuel cells and removing heavy metals from sewage.
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Top 10 Most Polluting Countries
In the following slides, find the top 10 countries with the greatest carbon dioxide emissions in 2011. Figures are estimates from the <a href="http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=CO2ts1990-2011&sort=des9">Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR)</a>, a joint project of the European Commission and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. (Photo Getty Images)
10. United Kingdom
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 470 million (Photo Getty/AFP/MIGUEL MEDINA)
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 490 million (Photo Getty/AFP/ROMEO GACAD)
#8 - Canada
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 560 million (Photo MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
#7 - South Korea
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 610 million (Photo CHOI JAE-KU/AFP/Getty Images)
#6 - Germany
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 810 million (Photo JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
#5 - Japan
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 1.24 billion (Photo YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
#4 - Russian Federation
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 1.83 billion (Photo KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
#3 - India
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 1.97 billion (Photo ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
#2 - USA
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 5.42 billion (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
#1 - China
Estimated 2011 CO2 Emissions in metric tonnes: 8.7 billion (Photo PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)