The carbon climate solution

 By Michelle Leslie

Invisible and odorless, carbon dioxide is a key contributor to altering our planet. It has an incredible ability to trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the earth to warm. A team of scientists leading new research is hoping to shift the role of carbon dioxide from climate changer to climate stabilizer. The U of T Solar Fuels Cluster team believes that they can create a zero-emitting economy thanks to carbon dioxide. Instead of capturing and storing carbon, the idea is to convert carbon dioxide into a renewable fuel. Their plan would stabilize the planet and the subsequent warming; meeting COP21 goals of limiting a temperature increase to below 2C…

(Cover photo by

Invisible and odorless, carbon dioxide is a key contributor in altering our planet. It has an incredible ability to trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the earth to warm. A 2015 report on the Trends in Global CO2 Emissions, found that while emissions remained relatively unchanged over the last year, global temperatures have been steadily increasing.

In fact, 2014 was the hottest year since record keeping began almost 150 years ago. If the 2016 data trend continues, this year will outstrip 2014 for heat; our oceans experiencing their warmest winter temps in history; almost a full degree above average.

But what if carbon dioxide could go from climate changer to climate stabilizer? That’s the goal of a team of University of Toronto scientists who are leading new research. The U of T Solar Fuels Cluster team believes that they can create a zero-emitting economy thanks to carbon dioxide.

They aren’t alone.

At the Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI), scientists are working on a puzzle, piecing together the requirements to create a carbon-neutral fuel from sunlight, water and air; shifting the energy paradigm. According to a recent report by the Royal Society of Chemistry, “The sun delivers more energy to the earth in one hour than we currently use from fossil fuels, nuclear power and all renewable sources combined in a year.”

(Imagine by

SOFI’s work, a global consortium between industry, national labs and universities, focuses heavily on plants, analyzing how plants feed off of sunlight and water; taking that chemistry and subsequently converting these elements into energy.

The end goal is carbon-neutral fuel production, power generation and energy storage. “We figured we can take water and use energy to rip it apart to oxygen and hydrogen and put the hydrogens together and make a gas. Hydrogen is one step,” says Dr. Dick T. Co, Managing Director of the Solar Fuels Institute at Northwestern University.

Then there’s the carbon piece of the puzzle.

When your car burns gasoline, carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere and as scientists have discovered, taking that carbon dioxide back from the atmosphere or preventing its initial release relies on special materials that the CO2 can stick to, similar to an air filter in your house. The carbon dioxide binds to these compounds and through various methods, such as heating up the material, the carbon dioxide can be separated.

The next step is putting together the pieces. Solar fuels can be created by storing the sun’s energy in chemical bonds, either in the form of hydrogen gas which is created from splitting water or by combing the hydrogen from water with carbon dioxide to form a hydrocarbon. The approach customized depending on the source of carbon dioxide. “Out of a power plant you have very pure CO2, but that’s a different calculation than if you want to take it out of ambient air where it is very dilute and moving the air is very costly,” according to Dr. Co.

The solar fuels concept could change the energy game, combating climate change by recycling and removing CO2 from the atmosphere and eliminating the need to ship fuels from one location to another. Instead fuel could be produced where and when it’s needed.

“You can generate the same type of fuels like methanol or jet fuel and you can create it on-site, states Dr. Co. “You don’t have to mine, refine and ship it. With water, sunlight, wind, energy and carbon dioxide that comes freely to you; you can produce fuel on-site.”

This change could equal smaller, customized power plants; eliminating the need for larger and often more costly facilities. Additionally, by re-casting carbon dioxide from waste to recyclable product, our earth could stabilize, halting or slowing subsequent warming. Taking the world one step closer to meeting its COP21 climate change goals of limiting a temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius. This is especially true if solar fuel production is tied to a renewable energy source such as solar or wind.

For people keen on living green, solar fuels have the potential to act like a back up generator whereby excess renewable energy that’s collected in one’s home could be sold back to the grid or stored.

SEE MORE: The sense of Inuit for climate change by Michelle Leslie


The team from the University of Toronto was recently awarded the Connaught Global Challenge Award which provides a million dollars in annual funding, which will help the Solar Fuels team enhance their contributions to society.

For SOFI, there too is huge reason to celebrate. The United States Congress recently referred a proposed bill on Solar Fuels to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The Solar Fuels Innovation Act, would establish a Solar Fuels Basic Research Initiative at the U.S. Department of Energy. The bill has the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

For Dr. Co, he believes that solar fuels are the way of the future. “This is as exciting as discovering the Higgs Boson or landing on the moon. We want to create an ecosystem where we can build profitable businesses and mitigate climate change.”

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.