Putting CO2 to a good use


One of the biggest culprits of climate change is an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the world tries to find solutions to reverse the problem, scientists from Swansea University have found a way of using CO2 to create ethylene, a key chemical precursor. They have used ID03 to test their hypotheses.

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Carbon dioxide is essential for the survival of animals and plants. However, people are the biggest producers of CO2 emissions. The extensive use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, or natural gas has created an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. Considerable research focuses on capturing and storing harmful carbon dioxide emissions. But an alternative to expensive long-term storage is to use the captured CO2 as a resource to make useful materials.

In the quest to solve the problem of climate change, scientists from Swansea University have created a catalyst that uses CO2, water and green electricity to generate ethylene, a key chemical precursor. Ethylene is one of the most widely used molecules in the chemical industry and is the starting material in the manufacture of detergents, synthetic lubricants, and the vast majority of plastics like polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride essential to modern society. “Currently, ethylene is produced at a very high temperature by steam from oils cracking. We need to find alternative ways of producing it before we run out of oil”, explained Enrico Andreoli, lead scientist of the team. The advantages of the team’s research are two-fold: on one side they use CO2 that would otherwise go into the atmosphere, and on the other they produce ethylene in a much more environmentally friendly way.


ID03's experimental hutch. Credits: P. Jayet

At the ESRF, the team worked at the ID03 beamline to test their invention: “We knew it was working, but we didn’t know why, although we had some hypotheses. The experiments at the beamline, using an electrochemical cell, were essential to monitor the crystalline structure of our materials during ethylene production”, explained Andreoli. The research showed that copper and a polyamide additive can be combined to make an excellent catalyst for CO2 utilisation. The polyamide doubles the efficiency of ethylene formation achieving one of the highest rates of conversion ever recorded in standard bicarbonate water solutions.

The next step for the team is to find industrial partners for the research to be applied at a larger scale: “CO2 emissions are a massive issue, and we have found a way to put them into good use by making materials we need in very large amounts. Industry will benefit from this as much as our planet”, concluded Andreoli.

Reference: Sunyhik Ahn et al. Poly-Amide Modified Copper Foam Electrodes for Enhanced Electrochemical Reduction of Carbon Dioxide, ACS Catalysis (2018). DOI: 10.1021/acscatal.7b04347

Text by Montserrat Capellas Espuny