Engineers Create “Artificial Leaf” That Turns Carbon into Fuel
Arnold Lander posted on November 20, 2019 |
New technology from the University of Waterloo can help to reduce greenhouse gases.
University of Waterloo Professor Yimin Wu. (Image courtesy of Brian Caldwell, University of Waterloo.)
University of Waterloo Professor Yimin Wu. (Image courtesy of Brian Caldwell, University of Waterloo.)

Scientists at the University of Waterloo have discovered an inexpensive way to convert CO2 into a useful alternative fuel. Engineering Professor Yimin Wu describes the new technology as an artificial leaf because of the way it mimics photosynthesis. A leaf produces glucose and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water. The University of Waterloo leaf produces methanol and oxygen.

The driver of the process is a red powder called cuprous oxide, which is a principal oxide of copper with the formula Cu2O. The powder can be produced by combining glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide, and sodium dodecyl sulfate with heated water.

An hour-long chemical reaction produces the red powder that is a critical component of the artificial leaf. (Image courtesy of Waterloo News.)
An hour-long chemical reaction produces the red powder that is a critical component of the artificial leaf. (Image courtesy of Waterloo News.)

The powder is mixed with water, and a beam of white light is directed at the solution. When CO2 gas is blown into the mixture, the powder acts as a catalyst. The resulting reaction produces oxygen and methanol, which is collected as it evaporates when the solution is heated.

Methanol is a naturally occurring organic molecule that is readily biodegradable. It does not accumulate in the cells of plants or animals. When methanol is released into the air, it will quickly break down into other nonhazardous chemicals, and it dissolves completely when it is added to water.

Methanol is gaining popularity worldwide as a clean-burning alternative fuel source. It can be blended with gasoline in low amounts and used in existing vehicles or in higher proportions to be used in flex-fuel or methanol dedicated vehicles.

The next steps in the research process include increasing the methanol yield and commercializing the patented process to convert the carbon dioxide collected from significant 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.”

You can read the Waterloo News article here.


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