How to Convert Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into Fuels

If the CO2 content of the atmosphere is not to increase any further, carbon dioxide must be converted into something else. However, as CO2 is a very stable molecule, this can only be done with the help of special catalysts. The main problem with such catalysts has so far been their lack of stability: after a certain time, many materials lose their catalytic properties.

At TU Wien (Austria), research is being conducted on a special class of minerals – the perovskites, which have so far been used for solar cells, as anode materials or electronic components rather than for their catalytic properties. Now scientists at TU Wien have succeeded in producing a special perovskite that is excellently suited as a catalyst for converting CO2 into other useful substances, such as synthetic fuels. The new perovskite catalyst is very stable and also relatively cheap, so it would be suitable for industrial use.

We are interested in the so-called reverse water-gas shift reaction,” says Prof. Christoph Rameshan from the Institute of Materials Chemistry at TU Wien. “In this process, carbon dioxide and hydrogen are converted into water and carbon monoxide. You can then process the carbon monoxide further, for example into methanol, other chemical base materials or even into fuel.”

This reaction is not new, but it has not really been implemented on an industrial scale for CO2 utilisation. It takes place at high temperatures, which contributes to the fact that catalysts quickly break down. This is a particular problem when it comes to expensive materials, such as those containing rare metals.

Christoph Rameshan and his team investigated how to tailor a material from the class of perovskites specifically for this reaction, and he was successful: “We tried out a few things and finally came up with a perovskite made of cobalt, iron, calcium and neodymium that has excellent properties,” says Rameshan.

Because of its crystal structure, the perovskite allows certain atoms to migrate through it. For example, during catalysis, cobalt atoms from the inside of the material travel towards the surface and form tiny nanoparticles there, which are then particularly chemically active. At the same time, so-called oxygen vacancies form – positions in the crystal where an oxygen atom should actually sit. It is precisely at these vacant positions that CO2 molecules can dock particularly well, in order to then be dissociated into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

We were able to show that our perovskite is significantly more stable than other catalysts,” says Christoph Rameshan. “It also has the advantage that it can be regenerated: If its catalytic activity does wane after a certain time, you can simply restore it to its original state with the help of oxygen and continue to use it.

Initial assessments show that the catalyst is also economically promising. “It is more expensive than other catalysts, but only by about a factor of three, and it is much more durable,” says Rameshan. “We would now like to try to replace the neodymium with something else, which could reduce the cost even further.“Theoretically, you could use such technologies to get CO2 out of the atmosphere – but to do that you would first have to concentrate the carbon dioxide, and that requires a considerable amount of energy. It is therefore more efficient to first convert CO2 where it is produced in large quantities, such as in industrial plants. “You could simply add an additional reactor to existing plants that currently emit a lot of CO2, in which the CO2 is first converted into CO and then processed further,” says Christoph Rameshan. Instead of harming the climate, such an industrial plant would then generate additional benefits.


How To Make EV Hydrogen Fuel Cells Last More

An international research team led by the University of Bern has succeeded in developing an electrocatalyst for hydrogen fuel cells which, in contrast to the catalysts commonly used today, does not require a carbon carrier and is therefore much more stable. The new process is industrially applicable and can be used to further optimize fuel cell powered vehicles without CO₂ emissionsFuel cells are gaining in importance as an alternative to battery-operated electromobility in heavy traffic, especially since hydrogen is a CO₂-neutral energy carrier if it is obtained from renewable sources.

For efficient operation, fuel cells need an electrocatalyst that improves the electrochemical reaction in which electricity is generated. The platinum-cobalt nanoparticle catalysts used as standard today have good catalytic properties and require only as little as necessary rare and expensive platinum. In order for the catalyst to be used in the fuel cell, it must have a surface with very small platinum-cobalt particles in the nanometer range, which is applied to a conductive carbon carrier material. Since the small particles and also the carbon in the fuel cell are exposed to corrosion, the cell loses efficiency and stability over time.

An international team led by Professor Matthias Arenz from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (DCB) at the University of Bern has now succeeded in using a special process to produce an electrocatalyst without a carbon carrier, which, unlike existing catalysts, consists of a thin metal network and is therefore more durable.

The catalyst we have developed achieves high performance and promises stable fuel cell operation even at higher temperatures and high current density,” says Matthias Arenz.

The results have been published in Nature Materials.


Artificial Leaf Could Become A Source Of Perpetual Energy

Rice University researchers have created an efficient, low-cost device that splits water to produce hydrogen fuel. The platform developed by the Brown School of Engineering lab of Rice materials scientist Jun Lou integrates catalytic electrodes and perovskite solar cells that, when triggered by sunlight, produce electricity. The current flows to the catalysts that turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, with a sunlight-to-hydrogen efficiency as high as 6.7%. This sort of catalysis isn’t new, but the lab packaged a perovskite layer and the electrodes into a single module that, when dropped into water and placed in sunlight, produces hydrogen with no further input. The platform introduced by Lou, lead author and Rice postdoctoral fellow Jia Liang and their colleagues in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano is a self-sustaining producer of fuel that, they say, should be simple to produce in bulk.

A schematic and electron microscope cross-section show the structure of an integrated, solar-powered catalyst to split water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. The module developed at Rice University can be immersed into water directly to produce fuel when exposed to sunlight

The concept is broadly similar to an artificial leaf,” Lou said. “What we have is an integrated module that turns sunlight into electricity that drives an electrochemical reaction. It utilizes water and sunlight to get chemical fuels.”

Perovskites are crystals with cubelike lattices that are known to harvest light. The most efficient perovskite solar cells produced so far achieve an efficiency above 25%, but the materials are expensive and tend to be stressed by light, humidity and heat.  “Jia has replaced the more expensive components, like platinum, in perovskite solar cells with alternatives like carbon,” Lou commented. “That lowers the entry barrier for commercial adoption. Integrated devices like this are promising because they create a system that is sustainable. This does not require any external power to keep the module running.”

Liang said the key component may not be the perovskite but the polymer that encapsulates it, protecting the module and allowing to be immersed for long periods. “Others have developed catalytic systems that connect the solar cell outside the water to immersed electrodes with a wire,” he explained. “We simplify the system by encapsulating the perovskite layer with a Surlyn (polymer) film.”

The patterned film allows sunlight to reach the solar cell while protecting it and serves as an insulator between the cells and the electrodes, Liang said. “With a clever system design, you can potentially make a self-sustaining loop,” Lou added. “Even when there’s no sunlight, you can use stored energy in the form of chemical fuel. You can put the hydrogen and oxygen products in separate tanks and incorporate another module like a fuel cell to turn those fuels back into electricity.”


Cost-Effective Method for Hydrogen Fuel Production

Nanoparticles composed of nickel and iron have been found to be more effective and efficient than other, more costly materials when used as catalysts in the production of hydrogen fuel through water electrolysis. The discovery was made by University of Arkansas researchers Jingyi Chen, associate professor of physical chemistry, and Lauren Greenlee, assistant professor of chemical engineering, as well as colleagues from Brookhaven National Lab and Argonne National Lab. The researchers demonstrated that using nanocatalysts composed of nickel and iron increases the efficiency of water electrolysis, the process of breaking water atoms apart to produce hydrogen and oxygen and combining them with electrons to create hydrogen gas.

Chen and her colleagues discovered that when nanoparticles composed of an iron and nickel shell around a nickel core are applied to the process, they interact with the hydrogen and oxygen atoms to weaken the bonds, increasing the efficiency of the reaction by allowing the generation of oxygen more easily. Nickel and iron are also less expensive than other catalysts, which are made from scarce materials.

This marks a step toward making water electrolysis a more practical and affordable method for producing hydrogen fuel. Current methods of water electrolysis are too energy-intensive to be effective.

Chen, Greenlee and their colleagues recently published their results in the journal Nanoscale.