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How to convert CO2 into furniture, drugs, and plastics—cheaply and efficiently

New catalysts made from abundant and inexpensive materials could lead to a commercially viable way to convert carbon dioxide into plastics and other useful products.
December 6, 2018

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Researchers have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into plastics, fabrics, and other useful products more efficiently and cheaply than possible before. The new method, described in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, is a form of artificial photosynthesis.

Plants are terrific at using energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates for fuel. Scientists have been trying to mimic this process to make clean fuels, drugs, and other products that use up planet-warming carbon dioxide.

Researchers have had success using this technique to produce fuels such as ethanol, methane, and hydrogen at relatively high yields. The problem is that known processes are still too inefficient, energy-intensive, and expensive to be feasible on a commercial scale. And that’s mainly because of the catalyst that is needed to trigger the chemical reactions.



So a team from Rutgers University came up with a group of five different catalysts that are made with abundant, and hence low-cost, nickel and phosphorus. These catalysts turn carbon dioxide and water into chemical compounds containing one, two, three, or four carbon atoms with more than 99 percent efficiency. The process is highly energy-efficient and does not require much electricity.

The carbon compounds can be used as building blocks to make useful materials. The number of carbon atoms in the end product depends on the catalyst used and the reaction conditions.

The longer carbon chains are more valuable and could serve as the building blocks of plastics. Two of the products could be used as precursors for plastics, adhesives, and pharmaceuticals, the researchers say, and one of them can be a safer substitute for toxic formaldehyde.

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The researchers now have patents on the process and have founded a start-up company to commercialize the technology. They plan to tweak the chemical reactions to create other products such as hydrocarbons and are working on scaling up the technology to produce larger quantities of end products.

Source: Karin UD Calvinho et al. Selective CO2 reduction to C 3 and C 4 oxyhydrocarbons on nickel phosphides at overpotentials as low as 10 mV. Energy & Environmental Science, 2018.


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