Researchers design an improved pathway to carbon-neutral plastics | 5/17/2018 | Staff
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Researchers from U of T Engineering and Caltech have designed a new and improved system for efficiently converting CO2, water, and renewable energy into ethylene—the precursor to a wide range of plastic products, from medical devices to synthetic fabrics—under neutral conditions. The device has the potential to offer a carbon-neutral pathway to a commonly used chemical while enhancing storage of waste carbon and excess renewable energy.

"CO2 has low economic value, which reduces the incentive to capture it before it enters the atmosphere," says Professor Ted Sargent, the U of T Engineering lead on the project. "Converting it into ethylene, one of the most widely-used industrial chemicals in the world, transforms the economics. Renewable ethylene provides a route to displacing the fossil fuels that are currently the primary feedstock for this chemical."

Year - Sargent - Team - Paper - Science

Last year, Sargent and his team published a paper in Science describing how they used an electrolyzer—a device that uses electricity to drive a chemical reaction—to convert CO2 into ethylene with record efficiency. In this system, the three reactants, CO2 gas, water and electricity, all come together on the surface of a copper-based catalyst.

Though the device was a breakthrough for the team, there was still room for improvement. The latest version, described in a paper published today in Nature, further modifies the catalyst in order to enhance the system's performance and lower its operating cost.

Challenges - Reaction - CO2 - Ethylene - Side

"One of the challenges with this reaction is that while some of the CO2 is converted into ethylene, most of it turns into side products, especially carbonate, which dissolves on the liquid side of the electrolyzer," says post-doctoral fellow Fengwang Li, lead author of the new paper. "This undesired loss increases the cost of ensuing product separation and purification."

In the latest work, Sargent's team partnered with Caltech chemistry professors Jonas C. Peters and Theodor Agapie. Their...
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