One of the goals of environmental engineers is to reverse greenhouse gases by using them to their advantage. The air is full of carbon dioxide from power plants, traffic, and factories, so capturing it isn’t difficult.
But what do we do with all that captured carbon? Matteo Cargnello, a chemical engineer at Stanford University, works to convert it into other useful chemicals: like propane, butane, and other hydrocarbon fuels.
A new catalyst, invented by Cargnello and his team, advances towardsthe goal of creating clean gasoline by increasing the production of long-chain hydrocarbons in chemical reactions.
“We can literally create gasoline,” explains Cargnello. The catalyst produced 1,000 times more butane (the longest hydrocarbon it could produce at its maximum pressure) than the standard catalyst given the same amounts of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, catalyst, pressure, heat, and time.
The new catalyst is made of ruthenium, a rare transition metal belonging to the platinum group, covered with a thin layer of plastic. Like any catalyst, this invention speeds up chemical reactions without running out of the process.
Ruthenium also has the advantage of being less expensive than other high quality catalysts such as palladium and platinum. Cargnello and his team describe the catalyst and the results of their experiments in their latest paper, published this week in a prestigious journal.
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Cargnello and his team took seven years to discover and perfect the new catalyst. The problem: the longer the hydrocarbon chain, the more difficult it is to produce.
Bonding carbon to carbonrequires heat and high pressure, making the process expensive and energy intensive.
In this regard, the new catalyst’s ability to producing gasoline from the reaction is a breakthrough. His lab reactor would just need a higher pressure to produce all the long-chain hydrocarbons for gasoline.
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Gasoline is liquid at room temperature and therefore much easier to handle than its short-chain gaseous brothers (methane, ethane and propane), which are difficult to store and prone to evaporate.
The research team imagines a neutral cycle in which carbon dioxide is collected, converted to fuel, burned again, and the resulting carbon dioxide starts the cycle all over again. What is called a closed circle, where we no longer pollute.