The search is on worldwide to find ways to extract carbon dioxide from the air or from power plant exhaust and then make it into something useful. One of the more promising ideas is to make it into a stable fuel that can replace fossil fuels in some applications. But most such conversion processes have had problems with low carbon efficiency, or they produce fuels that can be hard to handle, toxic, or flammable.

Now, researchers at MIT and Harvard University have developed an efficient process that can convert dioxide into formate, a liquid or that can be used like hydrogen or methanol to power a cell and generate electricity. Potassium or sodium formate, already produced at industrial scales and commonly used as a de-icer for roads and sidewalks, is nontoxic, nonflammable, easy to store and transport, and can remain stable in ordinary steel tanks to be used months, or even years, after its production.

The new process, developed by MIT doctoral students Zhen Zhang, Zhichu Ren, and Alexander H. Quinn, Harvard University doctoral student Dawei Xi, and MIT Professor Ju Li, is described this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

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