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A New Discovery that Converts Carbon Emissions into Fuel

The debate between development and environment is never-ending, especially for a fast developing country like India. It has been taken for granted development and environment are contradictory. Because development requires the use of fuel which increases carbon emissions and in turn cause harm to the environment. And if one chooses environment over development, the pace of growth reduces exponentially, which is unaffordable for India considering the high number of people living below the poverty line.

The Discovery

In face of such a dilemma, researchers at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have discovered something that could potentially end the contradiction between development and environment. The team has discovered a metal carbide nanoparticle (a compound of carbon and metal) that can convert CO2 into fuel; a particle that for the first time, can be produced sustainably at low temperature.
This means that the particles can be produced at an industrial scale at a low cost, and with minimal environmental impact, providing a vital pathway toward reducing the world’s greenhouse emissions.
Noah Malmstadt, a professor in the University of Southern California Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, is one of the authors of the research, in collaboration with Frederick G. Baddour from NREL and Richard Brutchey, professor of Chemistry at USC. Their work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Malmstadt said that the aim of the project was to capture carbon emissions from an emission source, such as a flue, and then to convert it into usable fuels, with the nanoparticles functioning as a catalyst to enable the reaction. “Basically what we’re doing is we’re turning the carbon dioxide from carbon-oxygen bonds to carbon-hydrogen bonds. So, we’re turning carbon dioxide back into hydrocarbons,” Malmstadt said.

What are Hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons are basic fuel stock. One can either turn them into fuel stock chemicals such as methane or propane. Or they can be used as the basis for chemical synthesis so they can be building blocks for making more complex chemicals.

Environment Impact of the Process

Until now, the process for creating the catalyst particles has been very energy-intensive, making it an impractical solution for converting carbon emissions. The carbides are created using a process where they are heated to temperatures higher than 600 degrees centigrade, a process that makes it difficult to control the size of the particles, which impacts on their effectiveness as catalysts.
However, the team’s discovery uses a millifluidic reactor process, a very small- scale chemical reactor system, which has a minimal environmental footprint. This means the particles can be produced at temperatures as low as 300 degrees centigrade, resulting in smaller, more uniform particles, which make them ideal for converting CO2 to hydrocarbons.
“We are producing the particles sustainably, using green chemistry methods,” Malmstadt said.
“The chemical reactor system operates in channels that are less than a millimetre across, which offers a ton of advantages over traditional reactors, particularly in terms of making materials that are very uniform and very high quality,” he said.
According to Malmstadt, the reaction process could be compared to the way that supercomputers have evolved over time; how they were housed in large laboratories and required giant memory banks and energy-intensive cooling systems. Whereas present-day distributed or cloud-based supercomputer systems are simply a grid of standard computers that run in parallel and share resources.
The power plants of the future could be very different from the current ones because of this discovery. Instead of stacks that pump carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the plant would capture all its carbon dioxide, converting it into fuel that can actually power the plant, which would create a carbon-neutral closed loop.