Catalyst Turns Sunlight and Carbon Dioxide into Fuel

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Catalyst Turns Sunlight and Carbon Dioxide into Fuel

A cheap new chemical catalyst has allowed scientists to mimic part of the photosynthesis process using electricity to split CO2 (carbon dioxide) molecules. The electricity was generated by a solar cell which then converted the energy into rich carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen.

Replicating natural photosynthesis in one form or another has been the goal of scientists for many years now, and this new catalyst may just be the key to making that happen on a more consistent basis. If so, this specific process could lead to a scientifically-engineered method to create unlimited amounts of fuels from sunlight, water and CO2—which also happens to be the main culprit in global warming.

The process essentially involves breaking CO2 down into separate particles of carbon and oxygen, which then gives way for oxygen to be bonded with hydrogen. With various combinations of hydrogen atoms, one could potentially power cars or other such machinery for extended periods of time. That being the case, researchers have been searching for catalysts—or combinations of elements—that would allow them to separate the compounds in CO2 once they’ve been formed.

This new catalyst—which is made from a combination of copper and tin oxides—allows the electric current to be channeled into splitting the CO2 compound apart as opposed to simply splitting water, which is what copper oxide catalysts tend to do. Ultimately, the catalyst proved to separate almost all of the CO2 particles on the opposite end of the current, giving researchers newfound hope that this could increase the efficiency of the process and allow catalysts to combine with microbes to generate fuel.

With this new catalyst presenting a possible future of unlimited renewable fuel—and a means with which to decrease the amount of CO2 warming our planet and damaging the ozone—the question remains as to whether or not the technology exists to be able to store and sustain such limitless amounts of energy. Until the point in time these batteries and storage facilities are developed, scientists will simply have to limit the capacity of their experiments and hope that they can perfect the process before upscaling in any way.

Top photo courtesy of Chuck Coker, CC BY-ND 2.0

Natalie Wickstrom is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She most likely wrote this piece to the tune of a movie score whilst chewing gum.