Engineers at the University of Cincinnati have developed a promising electrochemical system to convert emissions from chemical and power plants into useful products while fighting climate change.
Jingjie Wu, an assistant professor at the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science, and his students used a two-step cascade reaction to convert carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide and then to ethylene, a chemical used in everything, from food packaging to tires.
The study was published in the journal Natural catalysis in collaboration with the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
UC College of Engineering and Applied Science graduate Tianyu Zhang, one of the study’s lead authors, conducted a similar study last year that looked at ways to convert carbon dioxide into methane that could be used as rocket fuel for Mars exploration.
“The significance of the two-step conversion is that we can increase ethylene selectivity and productivity at the same time with the low-cost strategy,” Zhang said. “This process can be applied to various reactions because the structure of the electrode is general and simple.”
Selectivity means isolating the desired compounds. Productivity is the amount of ethylene the reactor can produce.
“We are selectively reducing carbon emissions into something valuable because of its many downstream applications,” Zhang said.
Applications include a variety of industries ranging from steel mills and cement plants to the oil and gas industry, he said.
“In the future, we can use this technique to reduce carbon emissions and benefit from it. Thus, reducing carbon emissions will no longer be an expensive process,” he said.
Ethylene has been called “the most important chemical in the world”. It is used in a range of plastics from water bottles and PVC pipes to textiles and rubber found in tires and insulation.
Professor Wu said the chemical they produce is known as “green ethylene” because it is created from renewable sources.
“Ideally, we can remove greenhouse gases from the environment while simultaneously making fuels and chemicals,” Wu said. “Power plants and ethylene plants emit a lot of carbon dioxide. Our objective is to capture carbon dioxide and convert it to ethylene by electrochemical conversion.”
So far, the process requires more energy than it produces in ethylene. By using tandem electrodes, UC engineers were able to increase productivity and selectivity, two key indicators for making the process commercially attractive to industry, Wu said.
There are huge environmental benefits to containing and converting greenhouse gases, Wu said.
“It’s pushed by the government. In the future, we will need sustainable development, so we will have to convert carbon dioxide,” he said.
And Wu said copper isn’t necessarily the best catalyst for this reaction, so industry experts have likely alternatives that could further increase productivity and efficiency.
“Our system is very general, but you can use preferred catalysts,” Wu said. “But even with commercial copper, we were able to more than double the performance. With an even better catalyst, we could solve the economic problem. “
Wu last year applied for patents for their design.
Zhang said the system will take some time to become economical. But they have already made huge progress, he said.
“Technology has improved a lot in 10 years. So in the next 10 years, I’m optimistic, we’ll see similar advances. It’s a game-changer,” Zhang said.
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Material provided by University of Cincinnati. Original written by Michael Miller. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.