Scientists find new way to turn CO2 into high value chemicals

The NUS team designed a nickel-based composite catalyst (extreme left) that facilitates the direct conversion of carbon dioxide from flue gas into multi-carbon products with remarkable efficiency. Credit: National University of Singapore.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have made an exciting breakthrough in transforming waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into valuable chemicals.

This new technique, led by Assistant Professor Lum Yanwei from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, could help combat climate change by reducing CO2 emissions and turning waste into useful products.

The innovation developed by Prof. Lum’s team focuses on converting CO2 from industrial waste, specifically from treated flue gas.

Flue gas is a by-product of industrial processes and often contains CO2.

Traditionally, converting CO2 into useful chemicals required high-purity CO2, which is expensive and energy-intensive to produce. However, the new method allows for the direct use of CO2 from flue gas, cutting costs significantly.

The NUS team’s method centers around the clever design of catalysts and the use of special electrolytes.

Catalysts are substances that speed up chemical reactions. In this case, the researchers created a highly efficient nickel catalyst for CO2 conversion, achieving an efficiency rate of over 99%.

They then improved this system by layering the nickel catalyst onto a copper surface, which, when used with acidic electrolytes, minimized unwanted reactions caused by oxygen impurities in flue gas. This innovative approach allowed the system to perform just as well as methods using pure CO2.

One of the most significant benefits of this new technique is its cost-effectiveness. Purifying CO2 can cost between USD 70 to 100 per ton, accounting for about 30% of the total cost of converting CO2 into valuable chemicals like ethylene.

By eliminating the need for pure CO2, the new method can save a considerable amount of money, making the process more affordable and sustainable.

The potential applications of this research are vast. While the current focus is on producing ethylene and ethanol—important materials for making plastics, polymers, and detergents—the technique can be adapted to produce other chemicals as well.

For example, it could be used to make acetate, used in adhesives, or propanol, used in disinfectants. This versatility makes the technique highly valuable for various industries.

The research team is now looking to scale up their work. They are in discussions with several companies interested in applying this technology on an industrial scale. The goal is to develop prototype reactors that can be used in real-world settings, moving beyond laboratory experiments.

This breakthrough is a significant step towards sustainable industrial practices. By converting waste CO2 into valuable products, this method not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but also creates economic value from waste.

As industries adopt this technology, it could play a crucial role in mitigating climate change and promoting a circular economy.

Assistant Professor Lum and her team’s work highlights the importance of innovation in addressing environmental challenges. Their research demonstrates how smart design and engineering can lead to practical solutions that benefit both the economy and the environment.

As they continue to refine and scale up their technique, we can look forward to a future where waste CO2 is efficiently transformed into useful products, helping to create a more sustainable world.