Materials

Artificial photosynthesis breakthrough could turn CO2 into plastics on the cheap

Artificial photosynthesis brea...
A look inside the lab at Rutgers University, where scientists have discovered cheap new catalysts to turn CO2 into valuable products
A look inside the lab at Rutgers University, where scientists have discovered cheap new catalysts to turn CO2 into valuable products
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How carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into valuable polymer and drug precursors
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How carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into valuable polymer and drug precursors
A look inside the lab at Rutgers University, where scientists have discovered cheap new catalysts to turn CO2 into valuable products
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A look inside the lab at Rutgers University, where scientists have discovered cheap new catalysts to turn CO2 into valuable products

From fuels, to foam mattresses, to high-performance carbon fibers, scientists are getting better all the time at capturing harmful CO2 and turning it into useful products. Researchers at Rutgers University have made an exciting breakthrough in this area, describing a new method of artificial photosynthesis that can convert carbon dioxide into the building blocks for plastics and other materials, and do so with greater efficiency and much more cheaply than ever before.

The ability of natural plants to take just a small amount of energy from the Sun to convert carbon dioxide into fuels, in their case carbohydrates and fats for self-sustenance, has inspired countless lines of clean-energy-oriented research. Recreating this process of photosynthesis in manmade devices is seen as a holy grail of sorts, and we have seen plenty of promising experimental devices that use photosynthesis to produce fuels we humans can use, such as methanol, methane and hydrogen.

But there is a ways to go before these technologies become commercially feasible, with their efficiency and costs closely tied to the catalyst materials used to kick off the chemical reactions. And this is where the Rutgers researchers are claiming to have taken a significant step forward, unearthing a set of catalyst materials that are widely abundant (and therefore cheap), and marry the low-energy requirements of natural photosynthesis with the durability needed to withstand harsh chemical reactions.

"The discovery of this catalyst came out of the efforts of applying nature's principles to chemical reactions of industrial importance," study co-author Anders Laursen explains to New Atlas. "This bio-inspired approach has the potential to leverage the low energy consumption of natural systems optimized through millions of years evolution but introducing the chemical resilience of heterogeneous catalysts. Through this we identified the family of nickel phosphides as excellent candidates for the CO2 reduction reaction, and we designed new reactors and analytical tools to verify our hypothesis."

The team's five new catalysts are made from cheap and abundant nickel and phosphorous, and the recipes can be tweaked to create carbon atom chains of varying lengths with more than 99 percent efficiency. These atoms can then take the form of molecules or long polymer chains, the latter of which can serve as the building blocks for plastics, potentially displacing the petroleum that is currently used in that process.

"Our breakthrough could lead to the conversion of carbon dioxide into valuable products and raw materials in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries," says lead author Charles Dismukes.

How carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into valuable polymer and drug precursors
How carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into valuable polymer and drug precursors

The scientists point out that it is hard to make direct cost comparisons with current methods where petroleum is used to produce plastics, as those numbers are a "highly guarded secret." They can draw conclusions regarding the efficiency, however, something that is measured in "overpotentials."

"The low overpotentials in this work means that the process is highly energy efficient, that is does not require a lot of energy," Laursen tells us. "Conventional electrocatalysts require up towards 0.7 V of overpotentials whereas this process reduces this loss by a factor of 70. The energy losses are essentially extra electricity that one has to use for the reaction. Hence, less energy means reducing the amount of electricity used and therefore the corresponding cost per kilogram (or pound) of product."

With patents in hand, the team will now work toward commercializing the technology. That will involve investigating the underlying chemical reaction to see how it could be tweaked to create other products, such as diols and hydrocarbons, along with how the technology can be scaled up from a laboratory setting to produce kilograms of useful materials every day.

The research has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Source: Rutgers University

15 comments
guzmanchinky
Go science!
Tim Craig
Potentially even more important is that this procss must release oxygen while capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere thus reducing global warming. . A candidate for Richard Branson;s prize for more efficient cooling systems, methinks.
DreadUK
Atmospheric CO2 is NOT "harmful" until it gets well beyond 6,000 ppm!
piperTom
Their goal is "kilograms of useful materials every day"?! So sorry, guys: if you want to make a difference to the economy or the climate, you need to make kiloTONS every day.
Robert in Vancouver
We need to be careful about reducing CO2 below levels needed for plants to grow and stay strong or millions of people will starve to death. We are close to those levels of CO2 now.
Kpar
"harmful CO2"? Give us all a break! That said, if this process is truly cheap and adaptable, it might prove to be a means of large volume production of high quality carbon nanotubes and graphene.
Wolf0579
Reading the comments, I am astounded by the deep level of ignorance displayed... My comment is, Don't we already have enough problems with plastics polluting our environment? We shouldn't be making anymore, instead, looking for environmentally friendly materials to replace the plastics we have become addicted to.
Aross
Oh Great, more plastic. Instead of wasting time on how to make more plastic at lower costs we should be looking at ways to get rid of what we already have created at lower costs and in less harmful ways.
MichaelShortland
Why not more plastics? just make them biodegradable?
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Wood rot is an enormous economic cost. Wood preservatives are a large source of toxins. Plastics can economically replace wood in rot prone applications such as sills and framing around windows.