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Posted by Amy Liu
Amy covers technology and innovation.
Contact: tech@sciglow.com

Scientists create ‘artificial leaf’ that turns carbon into fuel

Converts harmful carbon dioxide into useful alternative fuel.

2 weeks ago by University of Waterloo

Scientists have created an “artificial leaf” to fight climate change by inexpensively converting harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) into a useful alternative fuel.

The new technology, outlined in a paper published today in the journal Nature Energy, was inspired by the way plants use energy from sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food.

“We call it an artificial leaf because it mimics real leaves and the process of photosynthesis,” said Yimin Wu, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo who led the research. “A leaf produces glucose and oxygen. We produce methanol and oxygen.”

Making methanol from carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global warming, would both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a substitute for the fossil fuels that create them.

The key to the process is a cheap, optimized red powder called cuprous oxide.

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

Engineered to have as many eight-sided particles as possible, the powder is created by a chemical reaction when four substances – glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide and sodium dodecyl sulfate – are added to water that has been heated to a particular temperature.

The powder then serves as the catalyst, or trigger, for another chemical reaction when it is mixed with water into which carbon dioxide is blown and a beam of white light is directed with a solar simulator.

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

The reaction produces oxygen, as in photosynthesis, while also converting carbon dioxide in the water-powder solution into methanol. The methanol is collected as it evaporates when the solution is heated.

University of Waterloo Engineering professor Yimin Wu. Credit: Brian Caldwell

Follow the dotted line

28 Oct 2019

Next steps in the research include increasing the methanol yield and commercializing the patented process to convert carbon dioxide collected from major greenhouse gas sources such as power plants, vehicles and oil drilling.

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