A team of researchers at Harvard University have developed an innovative system that can transform carbon dioxide (CO2) into industrial fuels or chemicals that release only oxygen.
The system was devised and developed by Haotian Wang, a Fellow at the Rowland Institute at Harvard, and a number of colleagues. According to Wang, their latest system utilises renewable electricity to convert CO2 into CO, and the best thing is that it can be scaled up to be connected to coal-fired power plants producing large amounts of harmful CO2.
"About 20 per cent of those gases are CO2, so if you can pump them into this cell… and combine it with clean electricity, then we can potentially produce useful chemicals out of these wastes in a sustainable way, and even close part of that CO2 cycle," Wang said.
In 2017, Wang and colleagues developed a similar system, which was about the size of a cell phone and consisted of two electrolyte-filled chambers, each holding an electrode. This system used single nickel-atom catalysts to reduce CO2 to carbon monoxide (CO) and utilised graphene-based support to anchor single nickel atoms.
However, some major issues with this system included its cost, scalability, and that it worked only in a liquid solution.
We can potentially produce useful chemicals out of these wastes in a sustainable way, and even close part of that CO2 cycle
The new system developed by Wang's team is smaller in size and, he claims, much cheaper to build. It consists of a 10-by-10-centimeter cell, which makes use of high concentrations of CO2 gas and water vapours to produce about four litres of CO per hour.
To solve scalability issue of the previous system, the team used carbon black as the support. Now, the device uses a process similar to electrostatic attraction to absorb positively-charged single nickel atoms into negatively charged defects in carbon black nanoparticles. The material is highly selective for CO2 reduction and very cheap to synthesise.
The new system is fed with 97 per cent CO2 gas and just three per cent of water vapour (in earlier system, it was 99 per cent water and one per cent CO2).
Wang is hopeful that, in future, the system can be used in industry to capture the CO2 and convert it into useful, less environmentally harmful products.
The details of the system are described in a paper published in journal Joule.
CO2 is a colourless and odourless gas. While it exists naturally in the Earth's atmosphere, the level of carbon dioxide has increased dramatically since the industrial revolution through burning of fossil fuels, trees, wood products and solid wastes. The gas is also a byproduct of certain chemical reactions.
CO2 plays an important role in sustenance of plant life and to keep the earth warm. However, CO2 is also a ‘greenhouse gas' that can trap heat, causing excessive warming on Earth.
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