The Earth is undergoing climate change due to human activity. One facet of this change is the Greenhouse Effect, where molecules in the atmosphere trap heat, resulting in globally increasing temperatures. Carbon dioxide is a molecule produced in dangerous amounts by activities like farming and burning fossil fuels. Thus far, sustainably converting carbon dioxide to useful chemicals has been difficult, but scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have discovered an economically and environmentally feasible method to recycle carbon dioxide.
Copper is a metal that catalyzes, or speeds up, specific processes with carbon and water to produce carbon-based fuel such as ethanol. While copper’s surface seems smooth, it is rough at the micrometer (10-6 meters) scale. These rough areas are active sites where electrons from the copper can interact with molecules in chemical reactions. Molecules are identified by the number of electrons and types of atoms bonded together. The geometry of copper can facilitate exchanging electrons and reshaping molecules to form different molecules, much like how the same piece of clay can be molded into many different shapes. Scientists at Berkeley demonstrated in a recent paper that some of these copper sites are specifically shaped to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol, ethylene, and propanol efficiently when submerged in water.
This discovery presents a potential way to recycle harmful greenhouse gases into useful carbon-based fuel. At the moment, the scientists have shown that these chemicals are produced at specific sites on the copper, but have not yet identified which sites. If these sites can be identified, the next step for material scientists is to produce many of these sites for large-scale, environmentally friendly production of carbon-based fuel.
Managing Correspondant: Cari Cesarotti
Original Article: Carbon Fuels Get Greener for Renewable Energy
Image Credit: Joel Ager and Yanwei Lum/Berkeley Lab