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Solar-powered electrochemical cell used to produce formic acid from CO2


July 2, 2014

Researchers at Princeton University have converted CO2 into formic acid by using an electr...

Researchers at Princeton University have converted CO2 into formic acid by using an electrochemical cell powered by a commercially available solar panel (Photo: Shutterstock)

Rising atmospheric CO2 levels can generally be tackled in three ways: developing alternative energy sources with lower emissions; carbon capture and storage (CCS); and capturing carbon and repurposing it. Researchers at Princeton University are claiming to have developed a technique that ticks two of these three boxes by using solar power to convert CO2 into formic acid.

With power from a commercially available solar panel provided by utility company Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G), researchers in the laboratory of Princeton professor of chemistry Andrew Bocarsly, working with researchers at New Jersey-based start-up Liquid Light Inc., converted CO2 and water to formic acid (HCOOH) in an electrochemical cell.

Made from easily obtained machined parts, the electrochemical cell consists of liquid-carrying channels surrounded by metal plates the size of rectangular lunchboxes. Through an optimization process known as impedance matching, the team was able to match the power generated by the solar panel to the amount of power the electrochemical cell can handle so as to maximize the efficiency of the system.

According to the researchers, in this way they were able to approach an energy efficiency of 2 percent by stacking three of the electrochemical cells together. They claim that this is twice the efficiency of natural photosynthesis and the best energy efficiency achieved to date using a man-made device.

Formic acid, which is found in the venom of ants, currently has a wide variety of applications, such as a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed and for producing formate salt, which is used as a de-icing agent for airport runways. However, it also has potential for storing solar energy within fuel cells.

The approach shares some similarities with an artificial photosynthesis system developed by Panasonic. However, that system, which used hydrogen formed by splitting water by way of a nitride semiconductor to create formic acid, achieved an efficiency of 0.2 percent.

The team's study is published in the Journal of CO2 Utilization.

Source: Princeton University

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick

I noticed that they didn't mention the cost compared to other ways of producing formic acid.

2nd July, 2014 @ 01:08 am PDT

In addition to Slowburn's point, they didn't report what the byproducts are for the "wide variety of applications." I'm guessing... CO2.

2nd July, 2014 @ 05:36 am PDT

If this method will be used for cleaning the air from CO2, how will we dispose of all the HCOOH? It's a rather strong acid, much stronger than the H2CO3 from which it is produced.

Rik Delaet
2nd July, 2014 @ 05:59 am PDT

I wish researchers would stop experimenting with water as a component of so many 'breakthroughs' ... we need more water for drinking and farming. Unless these projects can reclaim fracked and other toxic water, salt water or other currently unusable sources, they should be abandoned. There is already far too little safe potable water available. Surely there are other ways to store energy. Of course there are.

Jansen Estrup
2nd July, 2014 @ 08:45 am PDT

Get these fools out of the kitchen before they screw up everything.

2nd July, 2014 @ 03:36 pm PDT

Use solar power to electrolyse salt water. This can produce the corresponding metal hydroxide (NaOH if sea water used) and halogen gas. The hydroxide reacts with atmospheric CO2 to produce Na2CO3 which can be stored in solid for of used as a additive to concrete and other cementitious building material. There are to many safe and environmentally friendly uses for halogen gasses. These gasses are of high commercial value and could potentially sustain the process economically. In reality, this and other technologies will never get off the ground until the externality of CO2 emission is suitably priced to reflect the impact it produces. This will never happen due to the 'tragedy of the commons' attitude.

Aaryn Johansen
2nd July, 2014 @ 06:46 pm PDT

@ Rik Delaet

The article mentioned that there are industrial uses for formic acid.

3rd July, 2014 @ 05:36 am PDT

Article did not mention that the byproduct of running the formic acid fuel cell to generate an electrical current is... water and CO2.

Rod Gonzaga
3rd July, 2014 @ 09:37 am PDT

With the increasing amount of empirical evidence suggesting that CO2 isn't the "pollutant" that we've been told it is, I can see no real purpose for these type of extravagant exercises in inefficiency.


7th July, 2014 @ 07:57 am PDT

I agree with the points of the other users, and would like to add, CO2 should only be capture from the source and not merely the air. Here's why; the ground air CO2 feeds plants which grow to gather more when fed, enlarging our carbon sink responsible for 20% of absorbtion. Removing from a source on the other hand keeps it from reaching the atmosphere which takes 100+ years to fully cycle it down. Like the others, anything using potable water or hydrogen is off the table in my book. To the scientist I say: Keep trying.. Not there quite yet.

8th July, 2014 @ 12:37 am PDT

"With the increasing amount of empirical evidence suggesting that CO2 isn't the "pollutant" that we've been told it is, I can see no real purpose for these type of extravagant exercises in inefficiency."

Ah, what you refer to as “empirical evidence”, the rest of us call


Gigantic amounts of CO2, such as spewed in to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, are in FACT a pollutant.

Plants simply don’t NEED much more CO2 than the atmosphere normally contains.

Modern “C4” plants can’t use excess CO2 at all. And those are what we call “food crops”.

The less evolved “C3” plants do respond to higher CO2; we tend to call those “Weeds”.

The lag time for more weeds consuming the higher C02 and re-balancing the atmosphere is distressingly long... and that’s ignoring the impact on our food production.

William Carr
8th July, 2014 @ 11:18 am PDT
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