Sandia labs eyes carbon dioxide as fuel

Add carbon dioxide, water, heat--and you could someday serve cars, Sandia National Laboratories says.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Carbon dioxide: It's the cause of global warming, and it could also become the cure.

Sandia National Laboratories is tinkering with ways to convert CO2 into liquid fuels or precursors to useful fuels, said Ron Stoltz, government relations manager for the lab, speaking here at a showcase for the 2007 California Clean Tech Open on Monday. At the event, organizations like Sandia, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and UC Davis showed off a few ideas percolating in their labs for alternative energy.

The idea is to heat carbon dioxide to about 1200 degrees Celsius with excess energy from nuclear power plants (or the excess heat from utility-scale solar power plants) and mix it with water or other substances. Some have proposed making hydrogen in this manner.

"You can make a lot of useful things out of CO2 and H2 or water," Stoltz said.

Making gas out of carbon dioxide is preferable to burying it underground, as many are proposing, he said, adding that Sandia knows a few things about burying poisonous substances. It oversees nuclear waste disposal.

Stoltz also said that the lab continues to work with LiveFuelsand other start-ups on algae-based biodiesel. The difficulty is in getting the water out of the algae.

Like most alt fuels, developing algae fuels that can compete with ordinary gas or diesel economically won't be easy.

"It's hard to beat gas as an ideal liquid fuel," he said.

Another idea at the event: simplified daylight harvesting at UC Davis. The university has come up with a way to harvest sunlight to light offices. A lot of companies do this, but Davis has combined a harvesting system with dimmers and occupancy sensors so that the system efficiently spreads the light around to the offices where needed. In many of the sunlight systems, you don't get this level of fine-tuning. All of the offices get light, or none of them do. The amount of light fed to the building is controlled by moving the solar receptor, a disk, away from the sun.