It sounds like science fiction, but the world is changing, and the reality of turning practically anything into useable material for construction or industrial use is here. Even better, greenhouse gas can now be turned into raw material instead of released into the atmosphere where it causes runaway climate change. Scientists have found a way to use nanodiamonds to convert greenhouse gas into useable industrial material. Using this method, simple materials can be used to create increasing amounts of several materials used in industrial settings, to convert gas to acid or a type of alcohol.

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How greenhouse gases can be converted into useful materials

The source material in question is CO2, which can be used as raw material for substances used in industrial processes, such as formic acid or methanol. Nanodiamonds serve as an environmentally clean photocatalyst to make the conversion possible. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microengineering and Microsystems IMM are working to turn this reaction into a continual process, which could make it scalable so that it is viable for industry.

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Formic acid can be used as a preservative on livestock feed. It’s an antibacterial agent that is also used in the chemical industry and in scientific research for tests, experiments, research and quality analyses of industrial processes and products. Formic acid is often used in fungicides. On the other hand, methanol is a wood alcohol that is a chemical building block used to make plastics, paints, car parts and construction materials. Methanol is also a clean energy fuel used to power cars, trucks, ships, fuel cells, boilers and cook stoves.

Formic acid and methanol only contain one carbon atom, as opposed to CO2, which makes them useable building blocks for helping create new materials instead of harmful greenhouse gas. Creating a way to make CO2 into a useable material could create a circular economy around the abundant gas, which might make it possible for companies looking to reduce their emissions able to reuse captured CO2 instead. This could create ways in which entire industries can turn a waste product into a recyclable material that reduces costs, boosts profits and motivates polluting corporations to capture their waste emissions.

The top of a diamond held by some pliers

How diamonds convert CO2 to be reused in industry

CO2 can be converted into formic acid using nanodiamonds as a catalyst and irradiating them with short-wave UV-C light from an aqueous environment. This method is being studied at the laboratories of Professor Anke Kruger at the University of Wurzburg. Nanodiamonds are environmentally friendly, as they are made of carbon and are inexpensive to produce because they are created on an industrial scale and are not jewelry grade.

Professor Kruger, who is now at the University of Stuttgart, Sahlmann Photochemical Solutions GmbH and researchers from Fraunhofer IMM are taking this research closer to real-world application with the framework of the CarbonCat project. Dr. Thomas Rehm, a scientist at Fraunhofer IMM, says that up until now experiments have been carried out in a batch reactor, or a stirred flask. This batch method is limited in scale, and the catalyst and contact between gas and liquid phase is less than ideal, while the resulting nanoparticles are also left floating around and need to be separated from the solution after the reaction.

To solve this issue, the team used a microreactor with upright standing reaction plate, which offers microchannels coated in diamond catalyst. The top of the plate has a slit into which water is pumped continually. The liquid runs down the plate, and capillary forces result in formation of a liquid film that coats the micro-channels.

CO2 is directed over the plate from below in a counterflow. This allows the reaction to take place in a continual fashion rather than in batches, using higher quantities of CO2 and in a smaller volume of solution, according to Rehm. This creates more resulting formic acid from higher CO2 conversion and simplifies the process.

Researchers also replaced the UV-C light with visible light, which is easier to handle and cheaper, only requiring a modification to the diamond surface to capture visible light. When light is shined on the coating, some electrons are lifted out of the diamond crystal lattice and onto the surface of the diamond layer, and are then transferred to the CO2 in combination with water to make formic acid.

It’s essentially a light-powered electron pump.

What needs to happen now?

What needs work now is how to increase contact times or increase reaction speed to make it more efficient.

As technology improves around climate change mitigation, we expect to see more patented technologies that can help turn waste or greenhouse gases into usable materials. We may look back on the last 100 years as a mystifying time in which we threw away or polluted the air or waterways with all kinds of materials that could have been reused in ways that are both practical, eco-friendly and profitable. It’s that last piece that will likely make these technologies part of the climate revolution so that industries can convert their processes and material use to new sustainable methods for a healthier future.

Via TechXplore

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