Dimensional Energy engineer Mihir Gada conducts syngas and methanol research in the company's laboratory at the McGovern Center incubator. 

Just add sun: McGovern startup converts CO2 into fuel

A ruinous, atmospheric greenhouse gas may soon get a public relations makeover, as Cornell startup Dimensional Energy has developed a way to add sunlight to carbon dioxide and transform it into an environmentally friendly fuel.

To bring this idea to a commercial level, Dimensional Energy has joined Cornell’s McGovern Family Center for Venture Development, a life sciences business incubator. The group will capture industrial carbon dioxide once destined to pollute Earth’s atmosphere, process it in a new type of reactor – where a key ingredient is sunlight – and turn it into syngas or methanol.

“We want to create a carbon dioxide refinery on an industrial scale,” said Jason Salfi, Dimensional Energy cofounder and chief executive officer, who explained that the idea could be one of several solutions deployed that help the Earth’s problematic carbon cycle and help to neutralize climate change.

“Think of carbon dioxide as a feedstock,” said David Erickson, the Sibley College Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who is a cofounder and partner in the company.

Dimensional Energy is pioneering artificial photosynthesis to produce green polymers and chemicals. “In industrial uses, we can capture carbon dioxide from commercial entities before it leaks into the atmosphere. We put it into our reactor, add hydrogen and sunlight. All of this goes into our machine and comes out as a useful fuel,” said Erickson, a Cornell Atkinson Center fellow.

The resulting methanol can be used for transportation, energy, heating and cooking with gas stoves. Said Erickson: “Since it was formed from a process that removed carbon from the atmosphere, it’s neutral – we can use it guilt free.”

Tobias Hanrath, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and a founding partner in the company, explained that carbon energy combustion has been overused by industrial society for more than a century.

“The ubiquitous process of combustion has gotten humanity in trouble,” said Hanrath, an Atkinson Center fellow. “We’re seeking to develop a reverse combustion process – artificial photosynthesis – where you make carbon dioxide an input and, from that, create a value-added product.”

Dimensional Energy got a serendipitous start, when Hanrath and Erickson applied independently for grants from NEXUS-NY, a clean energy business accelerator funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). NEXUS-NY recognized the two Cornell professors’ ideas were closely related and introduced them. The professors along with Salfi and entrepreneur Clayton Poppe, who were working for NEXUS-NY as mentors, formed the startup company Dimensional Energy in 2016 and worked with NEXUS-NY to develop the concept.

Building on successes earned during the NEXUS-NY program, Dimensional Energy is now funded by the National Science Foundation and the Shell Game Changer program. Taking residence at the McGovern incubator, Dimensional Energy hopes to produce larger scale reactor prototypes and to deploy a pilot with an already identified partner in 2020.

Said Hanrath: “Ideally, we will produce a liquid fuel like methanol. That would be very attractive, since liquid fuel is easier to store. It would be something quite useful.”

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Jeff Tyson