Channel 2 Investigates

Researchers using sunlight to filter greenhouse gases from the air

Fuel moves us, feeds us, keeps us cool and connected -- but how does it impact our planet?

Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), are blamed for raising the temperature of our planet.

According to researchers, humans are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere at unsustainable rates because plants, Earths biggest consumers of CO2, can‘t keep up with the amount emitted into the air.

“If you have more carbon dioxide, this heat tends to accumulate in the atmosphere, which is a cause for what we call global warming,” Dr. Fernando Uribe-Romo of the University of Central Florida explained. “Power plants produce lots of carbon dioxide; they have large emissions … other technologies like farming also produce a lot of carbon dioxide.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CO2 makes up more than 80 percent of greenhouse gases humans produce. Power Plant Schere in Juliette, Georgia, emitted nearly 18 million metric tons of CO2 in 2015 -- the second-highest in the nation.

“In the last 100 years, population increases exponentially, our demands of energy have already increased exponentially,” Uribe-Romo said. “We need to burn more fuels, burn more gasoline, burn more natural gas to produce more electricity.”


Converting and filtering CO2 is not new, but current methods use dangerous ultraviolet light or expensive platinum. Uribe-Romo's team said they found an inexpensive fix using sunlight. When they isolate just the blue light from our sun, they cause a chemical reaction to the CO2, turning it into formic acid.

“Formic acid is a compound similar to vinegar,” Uribe-Romo explained. “Formic acid is used for instance, in many drugs, it is used in the preparation of many fine chemicals like pesticides or food additives.”

He said implementing this technology on a big scale could be less than a decade away.

“We want to integrate this technology in a system that produces a lot of carbon dioxide,” Uribe-Romo said. “The most accessible system that produces a lot of carbon dioxide are power plants [and] farming facilities.”

Although humans still emit hundreds of millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas annually, Georgia Tech environmental engineer Dr. Michael Rodgers said we’re already making good decisions, because it’s good for our wallets. He said energy use has decreased dramatically with technology advances in the past 40 years.

“By simply telling people what the cost really was to operate their appliances, it incentivized manufacturers to make their products more efficient,” Rodgers said. “I don‘t emit carbon dioxide because I like to emit carbon dioxide … if I can get that same good, emitting less, then it’s a win-win situation.”