The process of waste production moves in one direction, regardless if it is linear (cradle-to-grave) or cyclical (cradle-to-cradle). Either way, energy and material production eventually results in waste that must either be disposed or reused. This process, however, may be reversed, as scientists at Princeton University have demonstrated. For decades, chemistry professor Andrew Bocarsly and his team have been investigating various means of converting CO2—a waste material of significant concern—into usable materials. They developed a photoelectrochemical method they call "liquid light," which operates as a kind of reverse combustion, flipping the expected process of fuel-burning. Rather than igniting a fuel with oxygen to produce CO2, the approach transforms CO2 back into fuel and oxygen.
In the midst of others' proposals to bury unwanted CO2 underground, the idea of producing usable industrial fuels and materials from CO2 has obvious appeal.
Based on the technology he developed with graduate student Emily Cole, Bocarsly teamed up with entrepreneur Kyle Teamey to found the company Liquid Light, aimed at developing the process for industrial applications. Liquid Light, based in Monmouth Junction, N.J., recently announced that the company had successfully produced ethylene glycol (MEG), which is used to make products like polyester fabrics and plastic bottles, from CO2. In a press release, the company declared that its process is also surprisingly cost-effective, requiring "$125 or less of CO2 to make a ton of MEG" compared with "an estimated $617 to $1,113 of feedstocks derived from oil, natural gas or corn."
In turning the conventional fuel-burning process backwards, Liquid Light also reverses the paradigm of industrial production. Rather than consider CO2 an undesirable waste product, industries that successfully adopt the technology will view CO2 as a widely available, low-cost, and profit-generating resource.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.