Green method converts carbon dioxide into plastics

(Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers have developed catalysts that can convert carbon dioxide—the main cause of global warming—into plastics, fabrics, resins, and other products.

The electrocatalysts are the first materials, aside from enzymes, that can turn carbon dioxide and water into carbon building blocks containing one, two, three, or four carbon atoms with more than 99 percent efficiency. Two of the products—methylglyoxal (C3) and 2,3-furandiol (C4)—can be used as precursors for plastics, adhesives, and pharmaceuticals. Toxic formaldehyde could be replaced by methylglyoxal, which is safer.

The discovery, based on the chemistry of artificial photosynthesis, is detailed in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Image showing the process of turning carbon dioxide into plastic
This image shows how researchers can electrochemically convert carbon dioxide into valuable polymer and drug precursors. (Credit: Karin Calvinho/Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

“Our breakthrough could lead to the conversion of carbon dioxide into valuable products and raw materials in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” says senior author Charles Dismukes, a professor in the chemistry and chemical biology department and the biochemistry and microbiology department at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. He is also a principal investigator at Rutgers’ Waksman Institute of Microbiology.

Previously, scientists showed that carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into methanol, ethanol, methane, and ethylene with relatively high yields. But such production is inefficient and too costly to be commercially feasible, according to lead author Karin Calvinho, a chemistry doctoral student.

Using five catalysts made of nickel and phosphorus, which are cheap and abundant, however, researchers can electrochemically convert carbon dioxide and water into a wide array of carbon-based products, she says.

The choice of catalyst and other conditions determine how many carbon atoms can be stitched together to make molecules or even generate longer polymers. In general, the longer the carbon chain, the more valuable the product.

The next step is to learn more about the underlying chemical reaction, so it can be used to produce other valuable products such as diols, which are widely used in the polymer industry, or hydrocarbons that can be used as renewable fuels. The researchers are designing, building, and testing electrolyzers for commercial use.

Based on their work, the researchers have earned patents for the electrocatalysts and formed RenewCO₂, a start-up company.

Source: Rutgers University