By Erik Derr ( | First Posted: Jul 24, 2013 02:52 PM EDT

(Photo : Reuters)

Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas at the top of every environmentalist's hit list, may actually be one of the planet's greatest untapped energy sources, new research says.

Similar to harvesting energy from the wind, a new combination of chemistry and mechanics could generate electricity from the carbon dioxide already produced by plants.

The process is detailed in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

Though the process wouldn't eliminate the gas, it would use much more energy from the carbon dioxide currently considered atmospheric waste.

"The energy is there," said research leader Bert Hamelers, a program director at Wetsus, the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Water Technology in the Netherlands, in a report by NBC News. "Only you need a turbine to get it."

The system Hamelers and his colleagues designed involves alternately mixing water or another liquid solution with combustion gasoline that containins a high concentration of carbon dioxide.

The liquid mixture is then poured through specialized membranes to produce an electric current by the friction between the liquids and air, Hamelers explained.

Other researchers are working on a similar mixing techniques to study the chemical differences between seawater and freshwater.

But, until his research, no one had before thought to create electricity by mixing combustion gas with air, said Hamelers, who also noted harvesting energy from carbon dioxide doesn't increase greenhouse gas emissions.

"For the same carbon dioxide emissions," he said," you get more use the energy that is now wasted. You bring it in and get the extra energy out."

But, Hamelers emphasized, "you cannot sequester it."

The study suggests the carbon dioxide released from power plants and other activities around the world could produce 1,570 billion kilowatt hours, or about 400 times the annual electrical output of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado.

"The objective for us was to show that, yes, there is this source of energy and, yes, you can harvest it," Hamelers said. "Of course, you need a lot more technological development before this is a system that can be practiced."

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