Hi-Light - Solar Thermal Chemical Reactor Technology for Converting CO2 to Hydrocarbons

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, Jessica Akemi Cimada da Silva, David Erickson, and Tobias Hanrath,
Cornell University;
Jason Salfiand and Clayton Poppe,
Dimensional EnergyIthaca, NY

The extraction and consumption of fossil carbon to run our daily lives accounts for more than 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions each year; driving climate change. Creating high-value products from CO2 can be achieved using energy from all parts of the solar spectrum to photocatalytically produce liquid hydrocarbons at high temperatures, making CO2 capture and conversion economical.

This technology enables the conversion of CO2 back to simple hydrocarbons, e.g. into methanol, which has a typical spot price about six times higher; potentially transforming carbon conversion into a profitable enterprise.

The HI-Light reactor is a solar-thermocatalytic “reverse combustion” technology that enables the conversion of CO2 and water to methanol and other high-value hydrocarbons. The HI-Light reactor design derives from the concurrent optimization of light-coupling and catalyst availability.

In the HI-Light design, the tubes are internal light-guiding rods with specially designed scattering surfaces that enable deep and efficient penetration of the solar radiation captured from a parabolic light concentrator into the reactor. The reagents and products flow through the shell outside the rods. The optimal energy focused into the reactor interacts with the catalyst to convert incoming sequestered CO2. Photons with energies lower than those required for the catalytic reaction are used to provide thermal energy, and ultimately the high temperatures required to ensure selectivity and efficiency of the reaction to revert CO2 to hydrocarbon fuels.

The major challenge of electrocatalysis is lowering the over-potential with breakthroughs in new catalysts. Up to now, product selectivity, lowering faradaic efficiency, and catalyst durability have been hard to achieve. The immense amount of power that it takes to drive the reaction leads to high operating costs. The unique design feature of the HI-Light reactor is the optimized light delivery to both a fixed and fluidized nanostructured catalyst, coupled with solar thermal heating to reach elevated temperatures, thereby enabling faster reaction rates and selectivity of higher hydrocarbons.

The aim of the business and technical efforts is to demonstrate that the reactor enables substantially improved performance in terms of efficiency, volumetric productivity, and mass of hydrocarbon per mass of catalyst per time, relative to the state-of-the-art.

Advances from the project will contribute significantly to the reduction of energy-related emissions, and will have a positive impact on energy storage. The Cornell team has been working with startup Dimensional Energy to commercialize this technology. In addition to advancing into Round 2 of the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon X-Prize, the team also has had significant interactions with Shell Oil through the Shell GameChanger program.

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