World ethylene demand is expected to increase by 220 million metric tons per year by 2020. To solve this issue, a team of scientists led by assistant professor Jason Boon Siang Yeo of the Department of Chemistry at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed an alternative with their prototype device that mimics natural photosynthesis and works at room temperature and pressure to produce ethylene gas using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.
Yeo and his team first started designing a copper catalyst that could generate ethylene from readily available water and carbon dioxide when powered by electricity.The team subsequently introduced this copper catalyst into an artificial photosynthesis system to convert carbon dioxide and water into ethylene using only solar energy. They designed a prototype device, which measures 15 cm × 25cm × 40cm, to carry out the reaction, and achieved a 30% faradaic efficiency of ethylene, based on the number of electrons generated from solar energy — the same efficiency as photosynthesis.
Currently, the team is working on scaling up their device for ethylene as well as using similar systems to produce liquid fuels such as ethanol and propanol. They are focusing on increasing the surface area of the electrode and the size of the cell and designing a new cell that includes a gas diffusion electrode to achieve a higher reaction rate per surface area.