3 Research Groups Working on Reducing and Converting CO2 into Renewable Energy (REC)

Jazmin Murphy loves writing about environmental issues for 8 Billion Trees.Written by Jazmin Murphy

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Renewable energy from a windmill seen in a field with endless blue skies.

Wouldn’t it be great if scientists and CO2 reduction groups could figure out a way to convert all the harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated every day into something usable… like converting CO2 into renewable energy (REC) credits?

You bet!

And, that’s exactly what these three research groups are doing… and their innovations are astounding!

Emerging Technologies in Climate Reversal

Emerging CO2 conversion technologies are introducing new levels of accessibility to renewable energies, and Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) are delivering new ways to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Knowing what renewable energy is and what its impact could mean for the environment is crucial, since burning fossil fuels in the United States (to generate electricity) accounts for about 30% of the U.S.’s global warming contribution.10

That warming is causing a multitude of ecological and environmental issues, from melting ice caps to natural disasters. But with research groups working to develop renewable energy alternatives, there is hope for converting CO2 into something we can actually use.

What is Renewable Energy Conversion?

“Renewable energy conversion” is an umbrella term applied to various technologies that convert a resource into power. This can apply to energy derived from water (“hydropower”) via hydroelectric power plants, wind energy from wind turbines, solar power generated through photovoltaic (PV) panels, or “solar panels,” and other renewable energy systems.

As the threats related to climate change grow, research teams worldwide are developing ways to transition to the use of renewable power. Furthermore, they’re attempting to undo centuries of human-caused environmental damage by extracting carbon dioxide directly from greenhouse-gas-emitting sources and the atmosphere.5

By keeping an eye out for emerging technologies and partnering with groups generating renewable energy, individuals and businesses can demonstrate their dedication to a sustainable future with renewable energy credits and carbon credit providers.

But, how do they work?

Tracking Renewable Energy Compliance with RECs

A REC is a renewable energy credit, otherwise known as a renewable energy certificate. RECs are tradable, non-tangible energy commodities in the United States that represent proof that one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity was generated from an eligible renewable energy resource.9

More specifically, the REC means that a certified organization is developing or using a renewable energy source.1

In the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) words, a REC plays “an important role in accounting, tracking, and assigning ownership to renewable electricity generation and use.”1

It’s important to note that RECs are not controlled or standardized centrally by a single group or organization. Only 36 U.S. states and territories use RECs for tracking renewable energy and related transactions. Even less recognize these units for demonstrating renewable electricity compliance and other details.2

However, given the current energy production of the United States, finding any way to reduce and covert current carbon emissions is a move in the right direction.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic titled 'Current Energy Production,' with a graph and chart depicting how much renewable energy is planning on growing in 2021.

3 Research Groups that are Turning Carbon into Sustainable Energy

Although RECs aren’t universally accepted, they’re still a valuable asset for business growth.

If you don’t have direct access to a hydropower facility, like those operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA),11 or a wind farm like Terra-Gen’s,12 you might be unsure of where to generate or source your renewable energy for an REC.

Thankfully, scientists are consistently striving to create and develop energy sources that are generated in an eco-friendly manner.

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Improving Carbon Capture and Conversion

MIT researchers are developing technology that would quite literally suck carbon dioxide emissions out of the air.5 In particular, this greenhouse gas would be extracted from power plant emissions.

Their research helps catalytic systems produce valuable goods such as fuel and feedstock. (Catalytic systems, in grossly simple terms, are essentially the collection of elements that interact with one another for gas conversion.3)

MIT typically researches a certain type of catalytic system for this process, that consists of the following actions:

  1. A stream containing a mixture of gases, including carbon dioxide, or CO2, is put into water.
  2. The gas stream is then either mixed with the water under extreme pressure, or in bubbles produced by an electrode-filled container with a catalyst, such as copper.
  3. Once the gas stream is mixed with the water, it’s given a jolt of energy to make carbon compounds. This is how the system extracts CO2 that can later be used as fuel and many other things.
  4. The gases move through the water slowly, causing the CO2 conversion to be a lengthy process. However, researchers have shown that keeping the CO2 stream concentrated in the water immediately beside the catalyst surface can roughly double the system’s performance efficiency. (A catalyst surface is a solid surface that absorbs atoms to produce chemical reactions.4)
  5. When the chemical reaction between the gas stream and catalyst surface occurs, CO2 gets used up and is consequently sequestered from the atmosphere.

This is an excellent way to mitigate previous carbon emissions, and the researchers also introduced the potential to convert acetone and acetate into useful carbon compounds.

A materials engineering professor from Imperial College London expressed excitement about the developing work to MIT News: “The authors translate fluid mechanics concepts used in the oil and gas industry to electrolytic fuel production. I think this kind of cross-fertilization from different fields is very exciting.”5

2. West Virginia University (WVU): Bridging the Gap Between Renewable Energy and “The Grid”

Engineers Wenyuan Li and Xingbo Liu are working on a brand-new energy conversion system that converts one form of energy, such as heat, to another, more usable energy that can be readily integrated into the US’s current system.6

Their approach is based on a practical understanding of Americans’ dedication to their existing energy infrastructure. Instead of abandoning current energy production and storage techniques, they’re finding a way to complement the country’s energy comfort zone, so to speak.

(You can check your energy use with an ecological footprint calculator.)

Interestingly, they’re not going the typical route, converting CO2 through electrochemical or photoelectrochemical means.

Electrochemistry studies the relationship between electricity and an identifiable chemical change and involves moving electrical charges between conductors (like an object, substance, or gas) and ionized solutions. Photoelectrochemical processes involve causing chemical reactions like generating hydrogen by the electrolysis of water.

Instead, the duo aims to design a conversion system that can split water molecules to generate and utilize hydrogen to create power. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded the team $3 million to bring their dreams to fruition.

Li, a research assistant professor at Statler College, stated, “Attention has been focused on solar panels and wind turbines, but technology like this is the very throttle that decides how much renewables can eventually penetrate to the power grid and can be put to real use.”6

The extraction of hydrogen and the use of the element as fuel to generate power will come from two separate systems. Together, the WVU research team hopes these systems will decrease the lag between current renewable energy sources and public demand.

For example, solar energy relies on sunlight, and wind energy relies on strong winds or breezes. You can only harvest the energy when you get the light or wind. Li and Liu’s new system will hopefully be able to collect and store renewable energy weeks, or even full seasons, ahead of when it’s needed.

3. US. Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory: Turning Carbon Dioxide to Ethanol

Collaborative work between the US DOE and Northern Illinois University has led to the discovery of a new electrocatalyst that can turn CO2 into ethanol. So far, research has shown the process to be highly energy-efficient and relatively low cost.7

Plus, since ethanol is a primary ingredient in almost all the gasoline used in the US (along with pharmaceuticals and cosmetics),8 this conversion technology has substantial potential for fueling progress in the fight against climate change.

Argonne Chemical Sciences’ senior chemist and University of Chicago CASE scientist Di-Jia Liu explained that the conversion process would contribute to the “circular carbon economy,” meaning it enables the continued reuse of CO2.7

The innovative catalytic mechanism uses copper to break down the CO2 and water molecules and carefully put them back together to make ethanol under a field of electricity. The method has earned a “Faradaic efficiency” (referring to how carefully selective the ethanol production is) rating of more than 90%. This score is higher than any other process reported to date.8

This could change the entire renewable energy credit market as we know it, given ethanol’s significance to the fuel industry. More specifically, the team of scientists hopes that this mechanism can compensate for any gaps in the demand and supply for other renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

You Can Do It, Too

Renewable energy may seem too far out of reach for some, right now. Fortunately, research groups across the U.S. are working tirelessly to make it — and with it, renewable energy credits — more available to businesses and individuals. Reducing and converting CO2 into renewable energy is becoming more and more feasible, so keep an eye out for up-and-coming conversion technologies to shrink your carbon footprint.

For now, you may want to find other methods to keep you or your business green. But, thanks to scientists working to convert carbon emissions (and other CO2 reduction groups and tree planting offset options) into accessible renewable energy, the earth has renewed hope for healthy ecosystems.


1EPA Green Power Partnership. (n.d.). Renewable energy certificates (RECs). US EPA. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from epa.gov: https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/renewable-energy-certificates-recs

2Jones, T., Quarrier, R., & Kelty, M. (2015). The legal basis for renewable energy certificates. Center for Resource Solutions. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from resource-solutions.org: http://resource-solutions.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/The-Legal-Basis-for-RECs.pdf

3Otsuka, K., Yamanaka, I., & Wang, Y. (1998). Reductive activation of oxygen for partial oxidation of light alkanes. Natural Gas Conversion V, Proceedings of the 5th International Natural Gas Conversion Symposium,, 15-24. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1016/s0167-2991(98)80403-5

4Krotz, D. (2003, May 12). An inside look at a catalyst surface. Berkeley Lab, Science Beat. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from www2.lbl.gov: https://www2.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/MSD-catalyst-surface.html

5Chandler, D. L. (2021, January 25). Boosting the efficiency of carbon capture and conversion systems. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from news.mit.edu: https://news.mit.edu/2021/carbon-capture-efficiency-0125

6West Virginia University. (2020, December 3). New energy conversion system will bridge gap between renewable energy and power grid. EurekAlert!. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from eurekalert.org: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-12/wvu-nec120320.php

7Xu, H., Rebollar, D., He, H. et al. Highly selective electrocatalytic CO2 reduction to ethanol by metallic clusters dynamically formed from atomically dispersed copper. Nat Energy 5, 623–632 (2020). Retrieved May 25, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0666-x

8Parisi, T. (2020, August 10). NIU, Argonne scientists turn carbon dioxide into liquid fuel. NIU Newsroom. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from newsroom.niu.edu: https://newsroom.niu.edu/2020/08/10/niu-argonne-scientists-turn-carbon-dioxide-into-liquid-fuel/

9EPA, US (2015, June). “Green Power Partnership”. www3.epa.gov. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from www3.epa.gov.

10Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2021). Retrieved May 25, 2021, from eia.gov: https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=77&t=11.

11Our Power System. TVA.com. (2021). Retrieved May 25, 2021, from tva.com: https://www.tva.com/energy/our-power-system.

12Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC), California. Power Technology. (2021, June 28). Retrieved May 25, 2021, from power-technology.com: https://www.power-technology.com/projects/alta-wind-energy-center-awec-california/.