Scientists discover catalyst to convert CO2 into something very useful

16 Jan 2018

Image: Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock

With so much CO2 in our atmosphere as a result of decades of unfettered pollution, it’s about time we found a way to convert it into something useful.

The effects of a CO2 build-up in our atmosphere and the resulting climate change effects now and in the future have been well documented, but what if there was a way we could extract some of that damaging gas and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in the process?

To that end, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto has discovered the missing catalyst that could turn that CO2 into products such as plastic, which already relies on large amounts of energy and fuel.

In a paper published to Nature Catalysis, the team revealed how, with an advanced photonics system called the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and a new technique, it was able to pinpoint the conditions that convert CO2 to ethylene most efficiently.

Ethylene is the key ingredient of polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic today.

Current carbon reduction methods convert CO2 into other chemicals through the use of an electrical current and a chemical reaction, aided by a catalyst.

While many metals serve as the catalyst, copper is considered the ‘magic metal’ because it is the only one that can be used to create polyethylene. However, in the process, it creates a number of other damaging chemicals such as methane.


The surface of a nanostructured copper catalyst that converts CO2 into ethylene. Image: CLS

‘Renewable’ waste

In this new method, the team was able to design a catalyst and pinpoint the ideal conditions that maximise the ethylene production, while minimising methane production to almost nothing.

This in itself is a major achievement as, by using a new piece of equipment with the CLS, it is now possible for the researchers to study both the morphology and the chemical environment of their copper catalyst throughout the CO2 reduction reaction, in real time.

In practical terms, this could mean the production of many everyday plastics, but without any of the harmful side effects and the removal of fossil fuels in production.

“I think the future will be filled with technologies that make value out of waste,” said the project’s lead researcher, Phil De Luna. “It’s exciting because we are working towards developing new and sustainable ways to meet the energy demands of the future.”

However, the prevalence of plastic has been a controversial topic of late, most notably the issue of minute pieces of plastic called microbeads, which have accumulated in our oceans.

Speaking of the issue this month, the CEO of the Marine Institute in Ireland, Dr Peter Heffernan, said that 8m tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans each year.

If this trend is not reversed, by 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than marine life.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic