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article imageU of T scientists discover catalyst to turn CO2 into plastics

By Karen Graham     Jan 16, 2018 in Technology
Toronto - The Global CO2 concentration recorded on Monday at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii read 407.72 ppm. As the levels of CO2 continue to creep higher, scientists at the University of Toronto have discovered a catalyst to turn CO2 into something useful.
A group of researchers from the University of Toronto Ted Sargent group used a new technique that's only available at the Canadian Light Source research facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and were able to pinpoint the conditions that would convert CO2 most efficiently into ethylene.
Polyethylene is the most widely used form of plastic on the planet, with worldwide production exceeding 80 million tons annually. To make this plastic, Ethylene is needed. However, using the current methods in place to reduce carbon dioxide into other chemicals requires the use of an electrical current and a chemical reaction, aided by a catalyst.
There are a number of metals that can be used as a catalyst, but copper is the only metal that can be used to create polyethylene. However, the chemical process also creates a number of harmful chemicals. For example, gold, silver, and zinc can make carbon monoxide, while tin and palladium can make formate.
A technician of Canadian firm Carbon Engineering demonstrates how an air capture unit  pulls carbon ...
A technician of Canadian firm Carbon Engineering demonstrates how an air capture unit pulls carbon / CO2 from atmosphere in the form of pellets.
Carbon Engineering Ltd.
"Copper is a bit of a magic metal. It's magic because it can make many different chemicals, like methane, ethylene, and ethanol, but controlling what it makes is difficult," says U of T Ph.D. student Phil De Luna, the lead researcher on this project.
Designing the right catalyst
Because using copper in the reduction process can lead to the creation of large amounts of methane, the researchers wanted to create a catalyst and pinpoint the best conditions that would maximize ethylene production, while minimizing the methane output, preferably to zero.
It took the use of a unique piece of equipment developed by CLS senior scientist Tom Regier to make it possible for researchers to study the shape and chemical environment of their copper catalyst all the way through the CO2 reduction reaction, in real time.
"This has never been done before," says Ph.D. student Rafael Quintero-Bermudez, the paper's other first co-author. "This unique measurement allowed us to explore a lot of research questions about how the process takes place and how it can be engineered to improve."
PhD student Phil De Luna designed  synthesized  and tested the catalyst  performed X-ray spectroscop...
PhD student Phil De Luna designed, synthesized, and tested the catalyst, performed X-ray spectroscopy studies, and carried out advanced computational simulations. PhD student Rafael Quintero-Bermudez performed X-ray spectroscopy, materials characterization, and data analysis.
What would this new process mean for manufacturing plastics today? Basically, we could make plastics without any harmful side-effects while removing fossil fuels in the process and reducing a potent greenhouse gas.
“I think the future will be filled with technologies that make value out of waste,” said De Luna. “It’s exciting because we are working towards developing new and sustainable ways to meet the energy demands of the future.”
The research is a giant step forward for the U of T and CLS, and everyone was very pleased with the results. "We are constantly working to develop more and better tools for the research community to use. It is rewarding when you see the tools being used to solve important problems with significant applications," says Regier.
Canada's Global News reports the results of the study were published Monday in the brand-new Nature family journal Nature Catalysis.
More about University of toronto, canadian light source, catalyst, Nanoscale materials, Electrocatalysis