James C. Liao, Chancellor's Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been awarded $4 million over three years to develop a method for converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel isobutanol using electricity.

The grant was awarded by the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency?Energy (ARPA-E), a new agency that promotes and funds projects to develop transformational technologies to reduce the country's dependence on foreign energy, curb energy-related emissions and improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy.

As global climate change has heightened the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels, and to fundamentally change the way in which we produce and use energy, Liao has been at the forefront of efforts to develop new methods for producing environmentally friendly biofuels.

In the last couple of years, he has received widespread attention for his work producing more efficient biofuels by genetically modifying E. coli bacteria, and recently, for modifying cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide or CO2 to produce isobutanol — a reaction powered by energy from sunlight, though photosynthesis.

Now, Liao and his team would like to use electricity as the energy source instead. The process would store electricity in liquid fuels that can be used as high octane gasoline substitutes.

According to Liao, direct synthesis of biofuels using photosynthetic microorganisms such as algae and cyanobacteria is promising but requires a large surface area for light capture. And though solar photovoltaic cells are more efficient for energy conversion, the electricity produced faces a storage problem.

"Our proposed process will provide one of the most feasible and economical methods to convert electricity to liquid fuel in a scalable manner," Liao said. "The immediate impact is that it solves the electricity storage problem by converting the electrical energy to liquid fuels that are fully compatible with the current infrastructure for distribution, storage and utilization."

In the long run, the process can be extended to utilize solar energy via electricity or electron mediators to directly produce liquid fuel usable in internal combustion engines.

Liao's grant was part of $106 million awarded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to 37 research projects that focus on three critical areas: electrofuels (making biofuels from electricity), better batteries for electrical energy storage in transportation, and zero-carbon coal (innovative materials and processes for advanced carbon capture technologies).