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A System that is More Effective in Handling Climate Change

University of Cincinnati engineers addressed climate change and developed a more effective method of turning carbon dioxide into useful products.

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Associate Professor Jingjie Wu and his colleagues in the chemical engineering lab at UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science discovered that a modified copper catalyst enhances carbon dioxide’s electrochemical conversion into ethylene, which is a crucial component of plastic and has several other applications.

It has been said that ethylene is “the most important chemical in the world.” It is undoubtedly one of the most widely manufactured compounds, finding application in everything from vinyl to textiles to antifreeze. In 2022, the chemical sector produced 225 million metric tons of ethylene.

Wu stated that the method has the potential to replace fossil fuels as a means of generating ethylene in the future. It also has the added advantage of clearing the atmosphere of carbon.

Ethylene is a pivotal platform chemical globally, but the conventional steam-cracking process for its production emits substantial carbon dioxide. By utilizing carbon dioxide as a feedstock rather than depending on fossil fuels, we can effectively recycle carbon dioxide.

Jingjie Wu, Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati

The journal Nature Chemical Engineering published the study.

Wu's students, including lead author and UC graduate Zhengyuan Li, worked with Rice University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and Arizona State University. Last year, Li earned a renowned graduate student award from the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

The electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 yields two major carbon products: ethylene and ethanol. Researchers discovered that utilizing a modified copper catalyst resulted in more ethylene.

Our research offers essential insights into the divergence between ethylene and ethanol during electrochemical CO2 reduction and proposes a viable approach to directing selectivity toward ethylene.

Zhengyuan Li, Study Lead Author and Undergraduate Student, University of Cincinnati

Wu added, “This leads to an impressive 50% increase in ethylene selectivity. Ideally, the goal is to produce a single product rather than multiple ones.

Supported by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy of the United States Department of Energy. Wherever feasible, the Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office is spearheading initiatives to cut back on the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions in industry.

Li stated that improving the procedure to make it more economically feasible is the next stage. The conversion mechanism becomes less effective as reaction byproducts like potassium hydroxide start to accumulate on the copper catalyst.

Li added, “The electrode stability must be improved for commercial deployment. Our next focus is to enhance stability and extend its operation from 1,000 to 100,000 hours.

According to Wu, these new technologies will help the chemical sector become more sustainable and energy efficient.

Wu concluded, “The overarching objective is to decarbonize chemical production by utilizing renewable electricity and sustainable feedstock. Electrifying the conversion of carbon dioxide to ethylene marks a significant stride in decarbonizing the chemical sector.

Journal Reference:

Li, Z., et. al. (2024) Directing CO2 electroreduction pathways for selective C2 product formation using singlesite doped copper catalysts. Nature Chemical Engineering. doi:10.1038/s44286-023-00018-w.

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