Scientists turn greenhouse gas into plastics

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In a groundbreaking stride towards a greener planet, engineers at the University of Cincinnati have discovered a more efficient way to turn carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into ethylene.

Ethylene is not just any chemical; it’s a fundamental building block in the production of plastic and is pivotal in manufacturing a wide range of products from clothing to antifreeze.

Associate Professor Jingjie Wu, alongside his team in the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, has been at the forefront of this innovative research.

By tweaking the design of a copper catalyst, they’ve significantly improved the process of converting carbon dioxide into ethylene through electrochemistry.

This method not only offers a path to produce ethylene using green energy sources instead of fossil fuels but also helps in reducing the carbon footprint by utilizing carbon dioxide, which would otherwise contribute to climate change.

Ethylene stands as the cornerstone of the chemical industry, with its production reaching a staggering 225 million metric tons in 2022 alone.

Traditionally, creating ethylene requires a process known as steam-cracking, a method notorious for its high carbon dioxide emissions.

Wu and his team’s work presents a promising alternative that could revolutionize how we produce ethylene, making the process more sustainable and eco-friendly.

The research, detailed in the prestigious journal Nature Chemical Engineering, was a collaborative effort involving not just Wu’s students but also scholars from renowned institutions like Rice University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, among others.

One of the students, Zhengyuan Li, even garnered a prestigious award from the College of Engineering and Applied Science for his contributions.

The team’s modified copper catalyst primarily yields ethylene and ethanol from carbon dioxide.

However, their innovation lies in tweaking the catalyst to favor the production of ethylene, resulting in a significant 50% boost in selectivity for ethylene over ethanol.

This distinction is crucial for making the process more efficient and commercially viable, as it aims to produce a single desired product rather than a mix.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the project aligns with broader efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut down industrial carbon emissions.

However, challenges remain, particularly in enhancing the catalyst’s stability to ensure it remains effective over longer periods. The team is focused on refining the process further, aiming to extend the catalyst’s operational lifespan from 1,000 to an impressive 100,000 hours.

Wu’s vision extends beyond just making ethylene production more sustainable. He sees this as a step towards a larger goal of decarbonizing the chemical industry by leveraging renewable electricity and sustainable materials.

This research not only highlights the potential for innovative solutions to combat climate change but also underscores the vital role of green technology in transforming industrial processes for a sustainable future.

The research findings can be found in Nature Chemical Engineering.

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