Growing up in the southern coastal state of Goa, Sachin Kochrekar spent his childhood amid lush green hills, pristine beaches, and breathing in the fresh air blowing from the sea. However, over the years, he watched as his city began to choke due to increasing air pollution.
In 2020, global CO2 emissions reached 31.5 giga tonnes, with fossil fuels contributing 34.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. Noticing this trend, Sachin was determined to do his bit to protect the environment.
More than five years since he moved from Goa, he has successfully come up with a method to convert these harmful CO2 emissions into fuel and help bring down the carbon footprint. Interestingly, his innovation mimics nature’s process of creating energy— photosynthesis.
In a conversation with The Better India, the 31-year-old scientist explains how he developed this method, and how exactly it works.
Recycling a harmful gas into a desirable fuel
After completing his post-graduation in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Mumbai in 2012, Sachin went on to join the Department of Applied Chemistry at Defence Institute of Advanced Technology, Pune.
In 2017, he came across a Materials Chemistry Research Group at the University of Turku, Finland, where he joined the PhD programme at the university.
“I have always been motivated to give back to the environment and help create a sustainable future. When I heard about this university, where there was an ongoing project about electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to contribute something to the environment in my own way,” Sachin says.
Since moving to Finland over four years ago, Sachin has been studying the method of electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide. It is a method by which CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels is broken down into smaller parts that can then be used as a clean source of energy.
“There is an urgent need to find an alternative source of energy and reduce our carbon footprint. While renewable energy like solar and wind are good alternatives, they are not available instantly and at all times. However, carbon dioxide is one of the most widely produced greenhouse gases, as fossil fuels are a major source of energy right now. Using carbon dioxide to produce energy is one of the many ways in which we can reduce its emission in the atmosphere,” he notes.
“After capturing the carbon dioxide, using an electrochemical reaction, the CO2 molecules would be broken down to create fuel, which can be used to power automobiles or any other machinery. This process helps close the carbon cycle and can turn 50% of the harmful emissions into fuel,” Sachin explains.
Using existing systems
While there are existing methods of producing renewable energy, these require setting up new infrastructure, which is costly.
This is where Sachin’s innovation comes in – it captures the already-existing carbon dioxide and converts it into fuel.
“I appreciate new alternatives like electric vehicles. However, it is extremely difficult for a country like India to provide electricity to charge cars when we cannot even ensure electricity for everyone’s homes, especially in rural areas. This project ensures that we do not have to invest in a new system as the infrastructure already exists, because industries and automobiles use fossil fuels,” says Sachin.
Many sources of CO2 emissions, such as existing power plants that run on natural gas and coal, will continue to function this way for the coming years. Sachin says that considering the continuing dependence on fossil fuels, this method holds great promise as it closes the carbon cycle and uses existing systems. Through this project, existing emissions are diverted and recycled before they reach the atmosphere.
The way forward
After over four years of conducting research, Sachin’s efforts finally paid off. In May 2021, he won the Millennium Pitching Contest, a competition for doctoral candidates with the task of solving the most pressing challenges of our time.
As part of the prize, he was awarded €10,000.
“Winning was both inspiring and amazing, since the level of the contest was so high. It still feels a bit unreal and it’s hard to put my experience into words. Scientists are always working behind the scenes and rarely get noticed, but contribute so much to society and development. It was great to showcase my work and see it recognised,” says Sachin.
He plans to come back to India and spread the knowledge that he has learnt. He hopes to continue his research and believes that it is only a matter of time before his innovation can be used as a source of energy.
Sachin says he is constantly looking for ways in which we can save the environment and create a cleaner and greener planet. Apart from his research work, he has been advising and working on a response project with the Government of Finland on reducing carbon footprint and helping them achieve carbon neutrality.
Edited by Divya Sethu