Copper clusters capture convert carbon dioxide make fuel

Copper clusters capture and convert carbon dioxide to make fuel

7:03 AM, 12th August 2015
Copper clusters capture and convert carbon dioxide to make fuel
A copper tetramer catalyst may help capture and convert carbon dioxide in a way that saves energy. It consists of small clusters of four copper atoms each, supported on a thin aluminum oxide film. These catalysts work by binding to carbon dioxide molecules, making it ideal for chemical reactions.

ARGONNE, US: Capture and convert-this is the motto of carbon dioxide reduction, a process that stops the greenhouse gas before it escapes from chimneys and power plants into the atmosphere and instead turns it into a useful product.

One possible end product is methanol, a liquid fuel and the focus of a recent study conducted at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. The chemical reactions that make methanol from carbon dioxide rely on a catalyst to speed up the conversion, and Argonne scientists identified a new material that could fill this role. With its unique structure, this catalyst can capture and convert carbon dioxide in a way that ultimately saves energy.

They call it a copper tetramer.

It consists of small clusters of four copper atoms each, supported on a thin film of aluminum oxide. These catalysts work by binding to carbon dioxide molecules, orienting them in a way that is ideal for chemical reactions.

The current industrial process to reduce carbon dioxide to methanol uses a catalyst of copper, zinc oxide and aluminum oxide. A number of its binding sites are occupied merely in holding the compound together, which limits how many atoms can catch and hold carbon dioxide.

“All four copper atoms are participating because with only a few of them in the cluster, they are all exposed and able to bind,” said Stefan Vajda, senior chemist at Argonne and the Institute for Molecular Engineering and co-author on the paper.

The benefit of enhanced binding is that the new catalyst requires lower pressure and less energy to produce the same amount of methanol.

“We’re interested in finding new catalytic reactions that will be more efficient than the current catalysts, especially in terms of saving energy,” said Larry Curtiss, an Argonne distinguished fellow who co-authored this paper.

Copper tetramers could allow us to capture and convert carbon dioxide on a larger scale-reducing an environmental threat and creating a useful product like methanol that can be transported and burned for fuel.

Of course the catalyst still has a long journey ahead from the lab to industry.

Potential obstacles include instability and figuring out how to manufacture mass quantities. There’s a chance that copper tetramers may decompose when put to use in an industrial setting, Curtiss said.

The catalysts can be varied in size, composition and support material, which results in a list of more than 2,000 potential combinations. “We haven’t yet found a catalyst better than the copper tetramer, but we hope to. With global warming becoming a bigger burden, it’s pressing that we keep trying to turn carbon dioxide emissions back into something useful,” Vajda said.

Curtiss said the Advanced Photon Source allowed the scientists to observe ultralow loadings of their small clusters, down to a few nanograms, which was a critical piece of this investigation.

The study, was published in the journal of the American Chemical Society and was funded by the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Co-authors also included researchers from the University of Freiburg and Yale University.

© Argonne National Laboratory News

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