Lights! Action! Photo-Activated Catalyst Grabs CO2 to Make Ingredients for Fuel

Scientists have developed a light-activated material that can chemically convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide without generating unwanted byproducts. The achievement marks a significant step forward in developing technology that could help generate fuel and other energy-rich products using a solar-powered catalyst while mitigating levels of a potent greenhouse gas.

Berkeley Lab scientists Kaiyang Niu (left) and Haimei Zheng, principal investigator, developed a new photocatalyst of metal organic composites that can effectively convert carbon dioxide into the ingredients for fuel. They made the new material, held by Zheng in a glass vial, by exposing a precursor solution to laser irradiation. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

When exposed to visible light, the material, a “spongy” nickel organic crystalline structure, converted the carbon dioxide (CO2) in a reaction chamber exclusively into carbon monoxide (CO) gas, which can be further turned into liquid fuels, solvents, and other useful products.

An international research team led by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore published the work July 28 in the journal Science Advances.

“We show a near 100 percent selectivity of CO production, with no detection of competing gas products like hydrogen or methane,” said Haimei Zheng, staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and co-corresponding author of the study. “That’s a big deal. In carbon dioxide reduction, you want to come away with one product, not a mix of different things.”

Getting rid of the competition

In chemistry, reduction refers to the gain of electrons in a reaction, while oxidation is when an atom loses electrons. Among the well-known examples of carbon dioxide reduction is in photosynthesis, when plants transfer electrons from water to carbon dioxide while creating carbohydrates and…

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