From waste to resource: new catalyst efficiently converts carbon dioxide

Dutch researchers have developed a new catalyst which could allow carbon dioxide to be converted to useful resources on an industrial scale. This could help contribute to the sustainable use of the greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an atmospheric gas, comprising 0.04 per cent of our atmosphere. While it has always been a vital part of the planet’s carbon cycle – regulating planetary conditions to make Earth capable of sustaining life – it has become a pressing global concern. Rising CO2 levels have been contributing to climate change since the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists and engineers have been increasingly concerned with how to not just reduce carbon emissions, such as by developing efficient alternatives to fossil fuels, but how to remove enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. This could involve protecting natural carbon sinks, such as oceans, or with carbon capture technologies like “artificial trees”.

Some carbon capture technologies collect emissions from sources – such the carbon capture system installed at Boundary Dam Power Station, a Canadian coal-burning station – and others capture CO2 already released into the atmosphere.

Ideally, gas captured by these technologies would be used, such as in oil production. But the process of converting CO2 into useful resources is famously tricky, and most captured carbon is stored.

This is is because CO2 is an extremely stable molecule, making it difficult to activate.

Scientists working within the sustainable chemistry research area at the University of Amsterdam have been addressing this activation problem through the development of a new catalyst which can convert CO2 to carbon monoxide (CO) under comparatively mild conditions.

“It was an accidental discovery,” says University of Amsterdam chemist, Dr Shiju Reveendran. “We were experimenting for a different product, but the catalyst turned out to be highly selective for CO2, better than any reported ones.”

CO is a toxic gas naturally produced by forest fires and volcanoes. Unlike CO2, it can be easily converted to common, useful hydrocarbons using existing technology.

An efficient catalyst to convert CO2 to CO could help solve the problem of how to make use of this stubborn, undesirable and abundant gas.

The new catalyst – which is in the process of being commercialised – is simple to prepare, and inexpensive. It works under mild conditions; at ambient pressure and low temperature. Experiments have confirmed that the catalyst remains active. This makes it a good candidate to be incorporated into industrial applications, such as in converting pollutants.

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