on April 15th, 2024

Engineers and researchers at MIT and Harvard University have achieved a groundbreaking feat by developing an efficient process capable of converting carbon dioxide into formate, a versatile material suitable for fueling cells and generating electricity. This breakthrough has significant implications across various engineering disciplines. 

High levels of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels have long been a concern. Amid climate crisis warnings, researchers have actively sought ways to utilize carbon dioxide to mitigate the effects on our environment. 

If a recent attempt is anything to go by, then we may be well on our way to re-greening our planet. In a study towards the tail-end of 2023, engineers and researchers successfully developed a method to turn greenhouse gases into fuel. 

The MIT and Harvard University team secured an efficient process that converts carbon dioxide into “formate, a liquid or solid material that can be used like hydrogen or methanol to power a fuel cell and generate electricity,” as an MIT press statement confirmed. 

This milestone was further underscored in a publication in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

How They Did It: Engineers Develop a New Clean Energy Process

The conversion process involves capturing carbon dioxide gas and electrochemically converting it into solid formate powder. This powder serves as a catalyst in fuel cells to produce electricity. 

Although demonstrated at a small scale in the laboratory, the process is believed to be scalable for providing emission-free heat and power to homes. It achieves a conversion rate of over 90 percent. 

Carbon dioxide conversion into formate
Engineers Develop a New Carbon Dioxide Conversion Process

In their statement, the researchers explained the conversion process. “Carbon dioxide is first converted into an intermediate form, liquid metal bicarbonate. This is then electrochemically converted into liquid potassium or sodium formate in an electrolyzer that uses low-carbon electricity, such as nuclear, wind, or solar power.” 

“The highly concentrated liquid potassium or sodium formate solution produced can then be dried, for example by solar evaporation, to produce a solid powder that is highly stable and can be stored in ordinary steel tanks for years or even decades,” the researchers stated. 

The team’s several optimization steps transformed an inefficient chemical conversion process into a practical solution. According to study author Ju Li, the formate fuel can potentially power various applications, from household units to large-scale industrial uses. 

“This is for community or household demonstrations, but we believe that also, in the future, it may be good for factories or the grid,” Li said. 

Engineering Support for Rollout 

The development of an efficient process to convert carbon dioxide into formate and its subsequent use as a fuel has significant implications across various engineering domains: 

Chemical Engineering 

Chemical engineers will be involved in designing and optimizing the chemical processes for converting carbon dioxide into formate. This includes selecting suitable catalysts, designing reaction pathways, and optimizing reaction conditions for industrial production. 

Electrical Engineering 

Electrical engineers will develop and optimize fuel cell technology to convert formate into electricity. They’ll design fuel cell systems, develop efficient electrodes and membranes, and optimize system performance for various applications. 

Materials Engineering 

Materials engineers are expected to play a crucial role in developing efficient and durable catalyst materials for carbon dioxide conversion. They could also work on materials for reactor construction that withstand harsh conditions and ensure long-term stability. 

Environmental Engineering 

Environmental engineers may be tasked with assessing the environmental impact of carbon dioxide conversion and formate utilization. They will evaluate factors like energy consumption, waste generation, and potential pollution to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

Energy Engineering 

Energy engineers will explore integrating formate-based fuel cells into existing energy systems. They will also evaluate formate’s potential as a renewable energy carrier, enabling storage and utilization of renewable sources like solar and wind power. 

Systems Engineering 

Systems engineers will integrate components of carbon dioxide conversion and formate utilization into cohesive systems. They will optimize processes for efficiency, reliability, and scalability in industrial-scale deployment. 

Positive Environmental Repercussions 

Formate fuel holds promise for applications ranging from household units to large-scale industrial uses or grid-scale storage systems. Initial household implementations may involve refrigerator-sized electrolyzer units to capture and convert carbon dioxide into formate for storage in underground or rooftop tanks. 

In essence, the development of a carbon dioxide-to-formate conversion process drives innovation across engineering disciplines. This breakthrough charts a path towards a greener future by addressing climate change concerns and fostering sustainable energy production. 


Engineers develop an efficient process to make fuel from carbon dioxide 

Researchers find a way of making fuel from carbon dioxide: Study 

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