Chasing Branson’s Earth Challenge? Catalyst Might Turn CO2 Into Fuel

News from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany, describes how a new catalyst that can split carbon dioxide gas might allow us to use carbon from the atmosphere as a fuel source. You know, the way plants do. If so, the Germans might find themselves in contention for Richard Branson’s Earth Challenge:

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.

As New Scientist reports:

“Breaking open the very stable bonds in CO2 is one of the biggest challenges in synthetic chemistry,” says Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. “But plants have been doing it for millions of years.”

Plants use the energy of sunlight to cleave the relatively stable chemical bonds between the carbon and oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule. In photosynthesis, the CO2 molecule is initially bonded to nitrogen atoms, making reactive compounds called carbamates. These less stable compounds can then be broken down, allowing the carbon to be used in the synthesis of other plant products, such as sugars and proteins.

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

“Carbon monoxide can be used to build new carbon-carbon bonds,” explains Goettmann. “We have taken the first step towards using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a source for chemical synthesis.”

Future refinements could allow chemists to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels as sources for making chemicals. Liquid fuel could also be made from CO split from CO2, says Goettmann. “It was common in Second World War Germany and in South Africa in the 1980s to make fuel from CO derived from coal,” he adds.


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  • Julia Whitty is the environmental correspondent for Mother Jones. Her latest book is Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. For more of her stories, click here.