Carbon-neutral fuels move a step closer

An efficient process for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, a key ingredient of synthetic fuels and materials.

Professor Xile Hu. © 2019 EPFL / Alain Herzog
Professor Xile Hu. © 2019 EPFL / Alain Herzog

Currently, the most active electrocatalysts for the conversion of CO2 to CO are gold-based nanomaterials, whereas non–precious metal catalysts have shown low to modest activity.

Many scientists are working to produce carbon-neutral fuels to capture and recycle that CO2. Scientists at EPFL recently made a landmark discovery by developing an efficient process for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, a key ingredient of synthetic fuels and materials.

Professor Xile Hu at the Laboratory of Inorganic Synthesis and Catalysis (LSCI) said, “To date, most catalysts have used atoms of precious metals such as gold. But we’ve used iron atoms instead. At extremely low currents, our process achieves conversion rates of around 90%, meaning it performs on a par with precious-metal catalysts.”

Jun Gu, a PhD student and lead author of the paper said, “Our catalyst converts such a high percentage of CO2 into CO because we successfully stabilized iron atoms to achieve efficient CO2 activation. In an experiment, scientists also tested the catalyst under operating conditions using synchrotron X-rays.

However, the team’s work is still very much experimental, the research paves the way for new applications. At present, most of the carbon monoxide needed to make synthetic materials is obtained from petroleum. Recycling the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels would help preserve precious resources, as well as limit the amount of CO2 – a major greenhouse gas – released into the atmosphere.

However, the work is still very much experimental, the research paves the way for new applications. At present, most of the carbon monoxide needed to make synthetic materials is obtained from petroleum.

Recycling the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels would help preserve precious resources, as well as limit the amount of CO2 – a major greenhouse gas – released into the atmosphere.

The process could also be combined with storage batteries and hydrogen-production technologies to convert surplus renewable power into products that could fill the gap when demand outstrips supply.

The study is published in the journal Science.