‘Magic’ found in metal could have amazing benefits for Earth’s climate

31 May 2018

Image: Sebastian Janicki/Shutterstock

A ‘magic’ property found in a common metal on Earth could be the spark needed to help turn CO2 into a usable, renewable fuel.

As the world attempts to find ways of phasing out polluting fossil fuels, scientists and engineers are putting an enormous effort into finding a cleaner and renewable alternative.

One possible solution can be found in the common (and whimsically named) metal bismuth.

Stunning to look at with its shocks of pink and splashes of gold, bismuth is already being used in a number of different ways, ranging from shotgun pellets to cosmetics and antacids. Within it, a ‘magic’ property has been found that could help turn harmful CO2 into liquid fuels and industrial chemicals.

In a paper published to ACS Catalysis, a team from the University of Delaware revealed this property to be ‘catalytic plasticity’.

When an electrical current was applied to a bismuth film in a bath of salty liquids containing imidazolium and amidinium ions, the team was able to ‘tune’ the chemical reaction to convert CO2 into either a liquid fuel such as gasoline, or to formic acid, a chemical commonly used to preserve human food and livestock feed.

Traditionally, chemists have needed to create a new catalyst to promote each different chemical reaction, but this approach shortens the process considerably as its ability to be tuned means it only needs one catalyst for a variety of needs.

‘A potential paradigm shift’

“We think this platform will allow renewable energy sources such as solar and wind to drive the direct production of liquid fuels,” said Joel Rosenthal, who led the research.

“But, more importantly, we believe this concept of catalytic plasticity signals a potential paradigm shift; a new way to think about renewable energy conversion, fuel production and catalysis, in general.”

Predicting what impact this breakthrough could have on current CO2 levels, Rosenthal said that determining such an outcome is very difficult, but that the ability to take CO2 and make liquid fuels using renewable electricity would definitely decrease our demand for fossil fuel.

“There are philosophical parallels between catalysis and the goals of the ancient alchemists,” he said.

“Alchemy is a loaded word but, in some ways, what we are studying is like modern alchemy. Efficiently transforming CO2 to more valuable fuels and chemicals is akin to trying to convert lead to gold.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic