Burning gasoline releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but this process doesn't have to be a one-way street. It may soon be possible to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and transform it back into fuel, reports Phys.org.

The idea of transforming carbon dioxide back into a fuel isn't new. In fact, plants are capable of a similar undertaking through the process of photosynthesis, whereby sunlight, water and CO2 are converted into sugars. Furthermore, a chemical method known as the Fischer-Tropsch process can be utilized to convert hydrogen gas (H2) and CO into liquid fuels, though this technique does come with its share of technological complications. For instance, the process requires high pressures and temperatures that make it impractical.

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A new breakthrough could soon change the math on the whole endeavor, however. The advancement comes thanks to research performed by Caltech chemistry professor Theo Agapie and his graduate student Joshua Buss, who have together developed a model system demonstrating how CO2 can be broken down and coupled into carbon-carbon bonds, an important step in the development of a viable fuel.

Basically, the researchers synthesized a new transition metal complex — a metal atom bound by one or more supporting molecules known as ligands. This material has the unique property of facilitating the cleavage of a CO molecule, which separates the carbon from the oxygen. The process on the whole can be used to produce an ethynol derivative. Better yet, it works even at temperatures lower than room temperature.

"To our knowledge, this is the first example of a well-defined reaction that can take two carbon monoxide molecules and convert them into a metal-free ethynol derivative, a molecule related to ethanol," explained Agapie.

The resultant ethynol derivative is not quite so useful as ethanol as a fuel, but it's a step in the right direction. As the process is improved, a viable fuel could be generated eventually.

The value of such a fuel can't be understated, particularly as a solution to the greenhouse gas problem. Fuels that are produced from atmospheric carbon dioxide could provide a carbon neutral solution to fossil fuels.