Rice University assistant professor Haotian Wang and his colleagues have made small reactors that allow single atoms of nickel to catalyze industrial greenhouse gases into carbon monoxide, an industrial feedstock. Wang and his team have improved their system to use renewable electricity to reduce carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, a key reactant in a number of industrial processes. The system is described in a paper in Joule, a Cell Press journal.
Wang believes that the most promising idea can be to connect these devices with coal-fired power plants or other industry that produces a lot of carbon dioxide. “About 20 percent of those gases are carbon dioxide, so if you can pump them into this cell and combine it with clean electricity, then we can potentially produce useful chemicals out of these wastes in a sustainable way, and even close part of that carbon dioxide cycle,” Wang says.
On further research, Wang and his team have developed a new system, which represents a dramatic step forward from the one he and colleagues first described in a 2017 paper in Chem. The new system addresses the two main challenges—cost and scalability—that were seen as limiting the initial approach.
To address that problem, he says, his team turned to a commercial product that’s thousands of times cheaper than graphene as an alternative support—carbon black. Using a process similar to electrostatic attraction, Wang and colleagues were able to absorb single nickel atoms (positively charged) into defects (negatively charged) in carbon black nanoparticles, with the resulting material being both low-cost and highly selective for carbon dioxide reduction.
The system still has challenges to overcome, particularly related to stability. But Ultimately, Wang says, the day may come when industry will be able to capture the carbon dioxide that is now released into the atmosphere and transform it into useful products.