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Engineers Turn Waste Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel and Plastics

This process could give the world breathing space as it changes towards a greener economy.

New ways of going green and closing the loop are being talked about every day, and now, a team of scientists from Australia has developed a method that can convert harmful carbon dioxide into materials such as fuel and plastics. This could be an important step towards a greener economy with, literally, more room to breathe in.

The method involved the conversion of carbon dioxide waste produced in industrial settings into useful products. This technology could effectively close the loop in processes that create harmful greenhouse gases.

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Creating nanoparticles that act as a catalyst for turning CO2 into syngas

Chemical engineers from the University of New South Wales showed that by making zinc oxide at high temperatures with a technique called flame spray pyrolysis, it is possible to create nanoparticles that take the role of the catalyst for turning carbon dioxide into "syngas."

This mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can be used in the manufacturing of industrial products that we've talked about before.

Cheaper and more scalable

According to the researchers, this method is way cheaper and more "more scalable to the requirements of the heavy industry than what is available today."

How did they do it?

Dr. Emma Lovell from UNSW's School of Chemical Engineering stated, "We used an open flame, which burns at 2000 degrees, to create nanoparticles of zinc oxide that can then be used to convert CO2, using electricity, into syngas.

"Syngas is often considered the chemical equivalent of Lego because the two building blocks —hydrogen and carbon monoxide— can be used in different ratios to make things like synthetic diesel, methanol, alcohol or plastics, which are very important industrial precursors."

Essentially, what they're doing is "converting CO2 into these precursors that can be used to make all these vital industrial chemicals."

Still some way to go

The study authors Dr. Rahman Daiyan and Dr. Emma Lovell have built an electrolyzer that was used to test waste CO2 gas that contains contaminants. However, at this point, it is too early to talk about converting all the waste carbon dioxide emitted by a power plant.  

"The idea is that we can take a point source of CO2, such as a coal-fired power plant, a gas power plant, or even a natural gas mine where you liberate a huge amount of pure CO2 and we can essentially retrofit this technology at the back end of these plants. Then you could capture that produced CO2 and convert it into something that is hugely valuable to industry," says Dr. Lovell.

A greener economy underway

The researchers stated that if they can reproduce their technology on a large-scale "the process could give the world breathing space as it transitions towards a green economy."

The study was published in Nature Energy.

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