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Scientists are transforming CO2 into liquid fuel

A team of scientists led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has identified a new catalyst that is capable of converting carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into ethanol with exceptional energy and cost efficiency.

In the United States, there is a high demand for ethanol in the production of gasoline, and also in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries.

Study co-author Di-Jia Liu is a  senior chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division and a UChicago CASE scientist in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

“The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide,” said Liu. “The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide.”

This new process would work by electrochemically converting the CO2 emitted from industrial processes, such as fossil fuel power plants, into liquid fuel.

“With this research, we’ve discovered a new catalytic mechanism for converting carbon dioxide and water into ethanol,” said study co-author Professor Tao Xu of Northern Illinois University. 

“The mechanism should also provide a foundation for development of highly efficient electrocatalysts for carbon dioxide conversion to a vast array of value-added chemicals.”

“We could couple the electrochemical process of CO2-to-ethanol conversion using our catalyst to the electric grid and take advantage of the low-cost electricity available from renewable sources like solar and wind during off-peak hours.” 

According to the experts, the new process operates at a low temperature and pressure, which means it can be rapidly started and stopped.

Study co-author Tao Li is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Illinois University and an assistant scientist in Argonne’s X-ray Science division. 

“Thanks to the high photon flux of the X-ray beams at the APS, we have captured the structural changes of the catalyst during the electrochemical reaction,” said Professor Li. 

The experiments showed a reversible transformation from atomically dispersed copper to clusters of three copper atoms each on application of a low voltage. The CO2-to-ethanol catalysis occurs on these tiny copper clusters – which will lead to improvements in the design.

“We have prepared several new catalysts using this approach and found that they are all highly efficient in converting CO2 to other hydrocarbons,” said Liu. “We plan to continue this research in collaboration with industry to advance this promising technology.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Energy.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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