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New process turns carbon dioxide into eco-plastics

The research, which has been undertaken by the University of Colorado at Boulder, holds the promise of tackling climate change via lowering carbon dioxide levels and generating carbon neutral products through one process. This type of development, as Laboratory Roots reports, builds on carbon sequestration, and then goes beyond it.

With carbon sequestration, this is the long-term storage of carbon dioxide through either a physical or chemical process. The aim is to prevent the accumulation of greenhouse gas. The most common example is by planting trees. While this is effective, the aim of the recent research was to additionally gain some kind of economic benefit from the sequestration process.

The new process uses bacteria to absorb different types of quantum dots. These dots are then linked with certain production enzymes inside the bacteria. The quantum dots are small semiconductor particles; as the dots have different excitation wavelengths, expanding from ultraviolet to near-infrared, they are able to tap into photonic energy. This energy can then drive the production enzymes. The enzymes then work to transform carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen into biofuel molecules like alcohol, ketones, and hydrogen. In addition, it is also possible to produce plastics through the process, such as the biodegradable material polyhydroxybutyrate.

According to lead researcher, Professor Prashant Nagpal: “The innovation is a testament to the power of biochemical processes. We’re looking at a technique that could improve carbon dioxide capture to combat climate change and one day even potentially replace carbon-intensive manufacturing for plastics and fuels.”

The new process is described in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, with the research paper titled “Nanorg Microbial Factories: Light-Driven Renewable Biochemical Synthesis Using Quantum Dot-Bacteria Nanobiohybrids.”

In related news, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology researchers together with University of Toronto scientists have shown how an existing ventilation and air conditioning system can generate so-called “crowd oil”, which is a synthetic hydrocarbons fuel. The process here needs carbon dioxide, water vapor, and thermal energy, which are harvested from air vents (see Nature Communications “Crowd oil not crude oil”).

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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