Neutral carbon fuels are approaching one step

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EPFL chemists have developed an efficient process to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, a key ingredient in fuels and synthetic materials.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) produced when fossil fuels are burned is normally released into the atmosphere. Researchers working on synthetic fuels – also known as zero-emission fuels – are exploring ways to capture and recycle this CO2. At EPFL, this research is led by a group led by Professor Xile Hu at the Laboratory of Synthesis and Inorganic Catalysis (LSCI). Chemists have recently made an important discovery, successfully developing a high-efficiency catalyst that converts dissolved CO2 in carbon monoxide (CO) – an essential ingredient of all synthetic fuels, as well as plastics and other materials. The researchers published their findings in Science on June 14th.

Replace the gold with iron

The new process is just as effective as the previous technologies, but with an important advantage. "To date, most catalysts have used precious metal atoms like gold," explains Professor Hu. "But we used iron atoms instead. At low currents, our process reaches conversion rates of around 90%, which means that it behaves on a par with precious metal catalysts."

"Our catalyst converts such a high percentage of CO2 in CO because we have successfully stabilized iron atoms to obtain efficient CO2 activation, "adds Jun Gu, a doctoral student and lead author of the article. To help them understand why their catalyst was so highly active, the researchers called a group led by Professor Hao Ming Chen at National Taiwan University, who conducted a key measurement of the catalyst under operating conditions using synchrotron X-rays.

Closing of the carbon cycle

Although the team's work is still very experimental, the research paves the way for new applications. Currently, most of the carbon monoxide needed to produce synthetic materials is obtained from oil. Recycling the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels would help preserve valuable resources, as well as limit the amount of CO2 – an important greenhouse gas – released into the atmosphere.

The process could also be combined with storage batteries and hydrogen production technologies to convert excess renewable energy into products that could bridge the gap when demand exceeds supply.

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