Researchers report on new catalyst to convert greenhouse gases into chemicals

January 31, 2014 by Karen B. Roberts
A UD engineering research team led by Feng Jiao has developed a highly selective catalyst capable of electrochemically converting carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with 92 percent efficiency. Credit: Evan Krape

( —A team of researchers at the University of Delaware has developed a highly selective catalyst capable of electrochemically converting carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas—to carbon monoxide with 92 percent efficiency. The carbon monoxide then can be used to develop useful chemicals.

The researchers recently reported their findings in Nature Communications.

"Converting to useful chemicals in a selective and efficient way remains a major challenge in renewable and sustainable energy research," according to Feng Jiao, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and the project's lead researcher.

Co-authors on the paper include Qi Lu, a postdoctoral fellow, and Jonathan Rosen, a graduate student, working with Jiao.

The researchers found that when they used a nano-porous electrocatalyst, it was 3,000 times more active than polycrystalline silver, a catalyst commonly used in converting carbon dioxide to useful chemicals.

Silver is considered a promising material for a carbon dioxide reduction catalyst because of it offers high selectivity—approximately 81 percent—and because it costs much less than other precious metal catalysts. Additionally, because it is inorganic, silver remains more stable under harsh catalytic environments.

The exceptionally high activity, Jiao said, is likely due to the UD-developed electrocatalyst's extremely large and highly curved internal surface, which is approximately 150 times larger and 20 times intrinsically more active than polycrystalline silver.

A UD engineering research team led by Feng Jiao has developed a highly selective catalyst capable of electrochemically converting carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with 92 percent efficiency. Credit: Evan Krape

Jiao explained that the active sites on the curved internal surface required a much smaller than expected voltage to overcome the activation energy barrier needed drive the reaction.

The resulting , he continued, can be used as an industry feedstock for producing synthetic fuels, while reducing industrial carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 40 percent.

To validate whether their findings were unique, the researchers compared the UD-developed nano-porous silver catalyst with other potential carbon dioxide electrocatalysts including polycrystalline silver and other silver nanostructures such as nanoparticles and nanowires.

Testing under identical conditions confirmed the non-porous silver catalyst's significant advantages over other silver catalysts in water environments.

Reducing greenhouse from fossil fuel use is considered critical for human society. Over the last 20 years, electrocatalytic carbon dioxide reduction has attracted attention because of the ability to use electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave.

Researchers report on new catalyst to convert greenhouse gases into chemicals
Credit: Feng Jiao

Ideally, Jiao said, one would like to convert carbon dioxide produced in power plants, refineries and petrochemical plants to fuels or other chemicals through renewable energy use.

A 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that 19 percent of greenhouse gas emissions resulted from industry in 2004, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's website.

"Selective conversion of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide is a promising route for clean energy but it is a technically difficult process to accomplish," said Jiao. "We're hopeful that the catalyst we've developed can pave the way toward future advances in this area."

Explore further: Process holds promise for production of synthetic gasoline

More information: A selective and efficient electrocatalyst for carbon dioxide reduction." Qi Lu, Jonathan Rosen, Yang Zhou, Gregory S. Hutchings, Yannick C. Kimmel, Jingguang G. Chen, Feng Jiao. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3242 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4242 . Received 10 September 2013 Accepted 10 January 2014 Published 30 January 2014

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1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2014
I don't where to start, but here it goes. First, converting CO2 to CO to further process into fuels makes no sense since CO2 will be re released when the fuel is burned. Next, it will require additional energy to convert the CO back into a carbon based fuel (not to mention a source of hydrogen). Finally, what does the thermodynamic look like for this perpetual motion process?
not rated yet Feb 01, 2014
If you create fuel from CO2 then burn it you have not introduced any new CO2 into the atmosphere. One advantage of storing energy (from some other source such as solar power) in a fuel that can be burned later is that it is easier to transport and store than with alternatives like batteries. So cars could continue burning and emitting CO2, but using fuel that already drew down the same amount of CO2, so there would be no net emissions.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2014
Nevermark, you can't escape the thermodynamics of the required processes. You are burning carbon to get CO2, then somehow extracting the carbon from the reaction products and then burning it again. This is not a zero sum game. In the simplest sense, there is a heat of formation of CO2, and any further treatment of the CO2 requires energy above and beyond what was liberated in the first place.

Any discussion of renewables from biomass you should realize that you can consume biomass faster than you can grow it.

There is no free lunch.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2014
I think those balls went over Tennis's head.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2014
@NoTennis -- Your analysis leaves out the fact that in this process the CO2 is a WASTE product which was produced in chemical manufacture and is currently vented to the atmosphere. This catalytic process would convert this waste CO2 into CO (and O2 of course) and use it as a building block for synthetic fuel. The synthetic fuel would then substitute for fossil fuels, and the net effect would be much less carbon released.

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