Many scientists have been eager to explore the concept of carbon capture – and especially the concept of transforming greenhouse gases into methanol – for several years. It’s an encouraging concept for sucking carbon emissions out of the atmosphere, slowing global warming and creating handy biofuels in the process, but so far the technologies that would accomplish this transformation haven’t been particularly efficient. But new research by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has developed a copper-based material that could make the process a realistic possibility.

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The material is called copper tetramer, and according to the Argonne National Laboratory, it serves as a catalyst that “consists of small clusters of four copper atoms each, supported on a thin film of aluminum oxide.” Carbon dioxide molecules are able to bind to these atoms, “orienting them in a way that is ideal for chemical reactions.” And this simple set up looks to be significantly more efficient that the current industrial model, wherein a catalyst of copper, zinc oxide and aluminum oxide aids in reducing CO2 to methanol.

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In the copper, zinc oxide, aluminum oxide catalyst, a number of the atoms are occupied simply in the role of holding the compound together, whereas in the copper tetramer all copper atoms are engaged with carbon dioxide molecules. Furthermore, with Argonne’s copper tetramer creating easier bonds between C02 and copper, there is far less pressure, and therefore less energy utilized in the whole process.

For now, the technology is very much at the experimental level, with only a few nanomenters of material having been created for testing. And so, while the lab scales up their experiments, and search out other catalysts that might even outperform their copper tetramer, there’s no doubt that the most immediate action we can take as a society to address carbon emissions is to lower our own footprints in whatever way we can.

+ Argonne National Laboratory

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