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26th November 2018

New process for converting CO2 into plastics and other useful products

Scientists at Rutgers University have developed catalysts that can convert carbon dioxide – the main cause of global warming – into plastics, fabrics, resins and other products.

The electrocatalysts are the first materials, aside from enzymes, that can turn carbon dioxide and water into carbon building blocks containing one, two, three or four carbon atoms with more than 99% efficiency. Two of the products created by the researchers – methylglyoxal (C3) and 2,3-furandiol (C4) – can be used as precursors for plastics, adhesives and pharmaceuticals. Toxic formaldehyde could be replaced by methylglyoxal, which is safer.

The discovery, based on the chemistry of artificial photosynthesis, is detailed in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

"Our breakthrough could lead to the conversion of carbon dioxide into valuable products and raw materials in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries," said senior author Charles Dismukes, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

 

co2 into plastics
Credit: Karin Calvinho/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

 

Previously, scientists showed that carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into methanol, ethanol, methane and ethylene with relatively high yields – but such production is inefficient and too costly to be commercially feasible, according to study lead author, Karin Calvinho, a chemistry doctoral student in Rutgers' School of Graduate Studies.

However, carbon dioxide and water can be electrochemically converted into a wide array of carbon-based products, using five catalysts made of nickel and phosphorus, which are cheap and abundant, she said. The choice of catalyst and other conditions determine how many carbon atoms can be stitched together to make molecules or even generate longer polymers. In general, the longer the carbon chain, the more valuable the product.

Based on their research, the Rutgers scientists have earned patents for the electrocatalysts and formed RenewCO2, a start-up company. The next step is to learn more about the underlying chemical reaction, so it can be used to produce other valuable products such as diols, which are widely used in the polymer industry, or hydrocarbons that can be used as renewable fuels. The Rutgers experts are designing, building and testing electrolysers for commercial use.

 

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