Researchers create breakthrough material to turn carbon dioxide into clean-burning fuel

A team of materials scientists led by Shan Gao at the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences in Hefei, China have created a new material that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into formate, a clean fuel that can be burned with no toxic byproducts and used as a clean energy source. Made of partially oxidized cobalt layers, the material carries out the conversion with a high level of efficiency. This material can provide the global-warming-ridden humanity a slight, even though much needed, breathing room; literally believe the researchers.

It’s been decades since we recognized the problems created by excess carbon emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere, and scientists have been struggling to come up with an energy-efficient way to transform CO2 into something useful.

“This represents a fundamental scientific breakthrough,” Karthish Manthiram, a chemical engineer from the California Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, told William Herkewitz at Popular Mechanics.

“Certainly it will be a years-long process before this is worked into a successful, commercial device. But at this stage of development, by all conceivable metrics, this reaction looks very positive.”

Even though in recent years, we have reduced our carbon footprint by a significant amount, it has not yet been completely removed. Energy generation, manufacturing processes, transportation, etc. still release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day, so much that natural processes cannot keep up.

Humanity has been actively looking for these emissions to fight these emissions, and this new wonder-material could one of the most promising trump card.

The new material is a four-atom thick sandwich of cobalt metal and cobalt-oxygen molecules. Using a process called electroreduction, which involves feeding a small electric current through the material to change the molecular structure of the CO2 inside, it produces a clean-burning fuel.

As Herkewitz explains, when vibrated with electric current, the material interacts with CO2 molecules running through it. Bascially, a hydrogen atom (which has one electron and one proton) gets attached to the carbon atom of the CO2 molecule. When that happens, an extra electron is prompted into one of the oxygen atoms in the carbon dioxide. . “With that, the CO2 becomes CHOO-, or formate,” he says.

Gao and the team found they could quickly produce a steady stream of formate by keeping their material “about 10 milliamperes per square centimeter over 40 hours, with approximately 90 percent formate selectivity at an overpotential of only 0.24 volts,” they write in the journal Nature. To Manthiram, that makes the material “the best we’ve seen” by far, he says.

“One barrier has been something we call ‘overpotential’—how much extra energy you need to drive this process” Manthiram says. “Basically you want to keep that wasted energy as low as possible. [But] as you bring that overpotential down, you’d find that the rate at which you turn CO2 into formate gets slower and slower.” By contrast, Manthiram says, the new material has low overpotential but a high rate of formate production, all while remaining stable. “It’s very rare and difficult to find a material that satisfies all three of those constraints,” he added.

This kind of never-before-seen efficiency confirms that this material could be a practical and useful solution to the carbon emission problem, even though there is no clear-cut answer for the question of where and how it can be used.

It is upto to Gao’s team and other material scientists now to cultivate ways to fit the new material into commercial devices, which could cleanly reuse CO2 collected from existing power plants that is often simply stashed away in empty oil wells. “But I’m very optimistic,” Manthiram says. “Just five or ten years, ago [scientists in this field] assumed it might even be impossible to convert CO2 into formate with such a high rate and low overpotential,” he says. “We need fundamental breakthroughs of just this sort if we are going to earnestly tackle problems as big as global warming.”


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