Fossil fuels can be seen as fossilized solar energy, stored in the remains of plants and animals. Such resources can only be renewed naturally over geologic timescales -- millions of years.
Currently, carbon-containing fuels, like coal, oil, or natural gas, comprise over 80% of the global energy supply. Even though conventional renewables are gaining importance, fossil energy will continue to be a large part of the world's energy mix for many decades to come.
Because of this, Oxford Chemistry is helping to make these important energy sources cleaner and more efficient. Over the long term, research may even overturn conventional thinking by making fully renewable and non-polluting carbon-based energy possible.
Cleaner and More Efficient
Oxford Chemistry is studying ways to make existing fuels cleaner. Techniques under development can remove sulfur from fuel stocks before it causes acid rain. New combustion catalysts can allow fuel to be burned more efficiently, while producing less soot, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. Other research groups are actively developing economical chemical cycles that will capture and make inert the harmful byproducts of combustion before they can enter the atmosphere.
We are also finding ways to use finite natural resources more efficiently. For instance, because the heaviest parts of crude oil are thick and hard-to-use, this energy-rich resource is today usually burned in dirty and inefficient ways. Oxford Chemistry is inventing catalysts and new processes to selectively break down the components of heavy oil into smaller and cleaner-burning components, maximizing both their economic and energetic value.
Closing the Carbon Cycle: Turning CO2 into Fuels
The way the world uses carbon today is mostly a one-way street: fuels are taken from the ground, combusted, and byproducts go into the atmosphere. The revolutionary idea that our use of carbon could be changed into a closed cycle is one where Oxford Chemistry is dedicating substantial effort. The ability to recapture the products of combustion and transform them into fuels and other useful chemicals could transform carbon into a fully renewable resource...truly a paradigm-changing new direction.
A promising approach for humans is to study, use, and improve upon the pathways that photosynthetic organisms have used for over a billion years to achieve just this feat. Both fundamental mechanistic studies and applied research have helped us begin to understand how these principles might be applied on a large enough scale to slow and reverse the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Other groups are devising ways to use inorganic materials to achieve the same types of transformations, turning what are now considered harmful pollutants back into useful energy.