The Global Search for a New Fuel Source

Climate Change is here. Whether one believes it will affect us immediately or gradually over time, more and more scientists, governments and businesses are beginning to see the predicted effects Climate Change is having on the ecological, geopolitical and economic spheres.
Rex Tilerson, CEO of Exxon went on record to say that “Clearly there is going to be an impact, increasing CO2 is going to have an impact. It will have a warming impact.”
Tilerson also went on to say it is an engineering problem that can be solved.
The issue then is in the design. Our current paradigm of business and economy is designed to dig, heat and throw away in order to produce goods for our economic well-being and cultural habits of consumption. The process that measures our success within this framework does not take into account the affects it has on the planet in general, even though all of the raw materials for our system come from the output of balanced and closed loop sustainable planetary systems. Essentially our general design is open-ended and based on the fallacy of infinite resources and the notion that we cannot have a substantial negative impact on our planet. Clearly this is faulty logic based on limited knowledge from the time period when this paradigm was adopted. Our premises about infinite resources and lack of substantial negative impact has led us to the creation of an open ended system of energy harnessing that reveals many flaws in our design specifically with regard to energy generation and consumption.
The challenge is to change our premise and create a closed loop system for energy generation and some form of neo fossil fuel consumption. This challenge is extremely difficult to discuss and even harder to realize in a manner that is scalable and economically viable.
During a speaking engagement at the University of Toronto I happened to meet a professor who is working on a project of magnanimous proportions that if successful could usher in such a system. Dr Geoffery Ozin is considered to be the father of nano-chemistry. Dr Ozin studied his Bachelor of Science at King’s College London and his Doctor of Philosophy at Oriel College Oxford University, before completing an ICI Postdoctoral Fellowship at Southampton University. Currently he is the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Materials Chemistry and Nanochemistry, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Toronto, and a Founding Fellow of the Nanoscience Team at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Internationally he has been Honorary Professor at The Royal Institution Great Britain and University College London, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Surface and Colloid Science, Golm Germany, and is Distinguished Research Professor at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and Global Chair at the University of Bath.
After a few meetings and phone calls with Dr.Ozin I got a sense of the magnitude of his work and the potential impact if he and his team were successful in their quest for developing fuel from the energy of sun. Dr. Ozin was kind enough to spend a few hours with me to reduce an extremely complex project to layman’s terms. Below is a mixed summary of conversations, excerpts and readings on the topic.
Fossil fuels are just stored energy from the sun that has been stored here on earth over tens of thousands of years. Solar fuel research, however, is aimed at the sunlight-powered conversion of carbon dioxide and water vapor to methane, and holds the promise of large scale electrical generation fueled entirely by the energy of the sun today. Not to be confused with solar cells, Dr Ozin envisions a photo-reactor system that would be a bolt on technology that would usher in the transitions from a fossil fuel intensive society to a Zero CO2 emissions society. The process could be configured to the generation methanol that could be used for fuel and could also be used to create a wide variety of industrial chemicals as well as power generation for homes and businesses.
The goal of the research is to create solar fuels, by capturing green house gas carbon dioxide and recycling it as an enabling chemical resource rather than a waste stream essentially creating what has affectionately being called the “artificial leaf”. Getting the process to a technologically significant efficiency and at global scale, while being cost competitive with fossil fuels will provide humanity the chance at a sustainable future for generations. This however has never been done and for good reason. It is extremely difficult at best, some argue impossible.
While the super leaf concept is elegant in its simplicity and powerful in terms of its promises for a sustainable future, it will only transition from laboratory curiosity to technological reality if the materials and engineering costs are understood and proven to be competitive to alternative approaches for making methane and methanol. To achieve this, there are certain challenges that have to be overcome. The challenge in designing and making materials that can transform carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to an energy rich fuel with an efficiency akin to Nature’s photosynthesis is one of cost and abundance.
Dr Ozin has focused his approach and has been hailed as being on the verge of a potential breakthrough. He has been understandably cryptic about some of his work, however he did let me know that he has directed his research efforts on a gas phase photo process and is in search of a “zero cost” non-toxic photoactive material with elemental composition in abundance, exemplified by metal oxides, carbon and silicon. These will require shrewd size, shape and surface materials engineering, judicious incorporation of additives and control of defects and thoughtful design of the way these materials are integrated to an architecture that optimizes the optical, electrical and chemical requirements of the system.
In the United States the Obama Administration has given $120 million dollars to a team led by Caltech to solve this challenge. Sun Catalytix, an MIT spin out company headed by Dan Nocera has also raised millions and has created an “artificial leaf” that mimics half of the photosynthesis process, water oxidation, however still struggles to make it cost competitive and achieve the other half of the photosynthesis process, carbon dioxide reduction.
Governments from many nations around the world have funded teams at the $100 million dollar mark to conqueror this challenge and I was extremely shocked to find out the limited financial support Dr Ozin and his team had received thus far from Canada. The work done by Dr Ozin and his team is considered trendsetting and it would be in Canada’s best interest strategically to take part in this race for real sustainable energy generation.
This is a long term project that will require a long term research and development strategy and as a result would not be of interest to most venture capitalists. Dr. Ozin needs the ongoing support of a philanthropist who has the vision and wherewithal to move the global needle on climate change and a desire to change the course of human history as it relates to energy generation. The promise of this technology cannot be overstated. It has the potential to change our relationship with economy, energy, sustainability and the wider universe.
Canada has made many world-changing scientific contributions, from antibiotics, to radio, to “emails on the hip” technology in the form of BlackBerry, to the Canadarm, to many of Google’s machine learning scientists. I am very excited about Dr. Ozin’s work and very optimistic that one or a few Canadians will grasp the opportunity for Canada again to shine on the world stage with a contribution that could change the overall course of human history.
By Dwayne Matthews
Dwayne Matthews is the Managing Director of Clean 15 and a leader in open innovation.