MIT Chemists Develop a Catalyst to Covert Greenhouse Gas into Gasoline

Air pollution by thermal power plant. Credit: CC/Oleg Savitsky

Air pollution by thermal power plant. Credit: CC/Oleg Savitsky

The team of chemists at MIT has developed a new catalyst material for producing liquid fuels from CO2, which is the main component of greenhouse gas emissions. The team constituted of Youngmin Yoon, a graduate student at MIT; Anthony Shoji Hall, a former MIT postdoc who is now a professor of materials science at Johns Hopkins University; and Surendranath, who is the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor at MIT. This research suggests a road map towards using the world’s existing infrastructure for fuel storage and distribution, without any addition of net greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.

The new catalyst facilitates the process only at its first stage, i.e. converting carbon dioxide (CO2) to carbon monoxide (CO). This is the key step towards converting CO2 to other chemical including fuels. There are already established methods for converting CO and hydrogen to a variety of liquid fuels and other products. This study was published recently in the international chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.

Scientists and chemists have been working on this for quite some time but the problem always faced was that how to selectively convert CO2. The new system developed by these chemists provides just that kind of selective, specific conversion process. Moreover, if the hydrogen and CO are produced using solar or wind-generated power, the entire process could be carbon neutral and hence will be of great help to the mankind.

The researchers focused on the selective conversion of CO2 and concluded that this process can be done by a tuneable conversion and by tuning the dimensions of the material’s pores they could devise the system to produce the desired proportion of CO in the end-product. They used a silver catalysts with this formulation, a material called a silver inverse opal, it is the pore structure of the material that determines the desired effect. With this, they turned the pore dimensions to tune the selectivity and activity of the catalyst, without modifying the surface-active site chemistry. They varied the thickness of this porous catalyst to achieve a double effect. As the porous inverse opal get thicker, the catalyst strongly promotes the production of CO from CO2 by nearly three times, while it also suppresses an alternative reaction, the production of H2 (hydrogen gas), by as much as tenfold.

Though the commercial application of this method will require further research and some investment, this can be a great breakthrough for solving many serious problems related to climate change.

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