Scientists’ Lab-Created ‘Leaf’ Converts Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

An hour-long chemical reaction creates the engineered red powder that is the key to new technology to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. (University of Waterloo)

(CN) – An international team of scientists manufactured material that can quickly and inexpensively convert carbon dioxide into an alternative fuel, according to a study released Monday.

The sustainable fuel source could factor positively in global efforts to eliminate carbon emissions by providing alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels, according to the study published in the journal Nature Energy.

Lead researcher Yimin Wu of the University of Waterloo said in a statement that the study was inspired by the engineering feat contained within leaves’ photosynthesis process.

“We call it an artificial leaf because it mimics real leaves and the process of photosynthesis,” Wu said. “A leaf produces glucose and oxygen. We produce methanol and oxygen.”

High levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere have been identified as a primary contributor to global warming, the study said.

In order to create a substitute for fossil fuels, researchers used an inexpensive, optimized red powder called cuprous oxide to convert carbon dioxide into methanol.

The powder is created through an oxygen-producing chemical reaction caused by adding hot water to four substances: glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide and sodium dodecyl sulfate.

Researchers then use a solar simulator to direct white light onto the mixture of water and powder, which undergoes yet another chemical reaction to produce methanol.

Scientists then collect methanol as it evaporates during the powder-water solution’s chemical transformation.

“This is the chemical reaction that we discovered,” said Wu, who has worked on the project since 2015. “Nobody has done this before.”

Researchers are now scaling up methanol production through their patented process and working to convert carbon dioxide from oil drilling sites, power plants and from vehicle emissions, the study said.

“I’m extremely excited about the potential of this discovery to change the game,” said Wu, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering. “Climate change is an urgent problem and we can help reduce CO2 emissions while also creating an alternative fuel.”

Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, California State University in Northridge, and the City University of Hong Kong contributed to the study.

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