As levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise, researchers are looking for ways to make use of it. One approach is to capture CO2 emitted from power plants and other facilities and use it as a carbon source to make industrial chemicals, most of which are currently made from fossil fuels.
The problem is that CO2 is extremely stable, and reducing it to a reactive and useful form isn’t easy.
“Copper has been studied for a long time as an electrocatalyst for CO2 reduction, and it’s the only metal shown to be able to reduce CO2 to useful hydrocarbons,” says senior author Tayhas Palmore, professor of engineering at Brown University.
“There was some indication that if you roughen the surface of planar copper, it would create more active sites for reactions with CO2.”
Pores and Channels
Copper foam, which has been developed only in the last few years, provided the surface roughness that Palmore and her colleagues were looking for.
The foams are made by depositing copper on a surface in the presence of hydrogen and a strong electric current. Hydrogen bubbles cause the copper to be deposited in an arrangement of sponge-like pores and channels of varying sizes.
After depositing copper foams on an electrode, the researchers set up experiments to see what kinds of products would be produced in an electrochemical reaction with CO2 in water.
The experiments showed that the copper foam converted CO2 into formic acid—a compound often used as a feedstock for microbes that produce biofuels—at a much greater efficiency than planar copper. The reaction also produced small amounts of propylene, a useful hydrocarbon that’s never been reported before in reactions involving copper.
“The product distribution was unique and very different from what had been reported with planar electrodes, which was a surprise,” Palmore says.
“We’ve identified another parameter to consider in the electroreduction of CO2. It’s not just the kind of metal that’s responsible for the direction this chemistry goes, but also the architecture of the catalyst.”
Now that it’s clear that architecture matters, Palmore and her colleagues are working to see what happens when that architecture is tweaked. It’s likely, she says, that pores of different depths or diameters will produce different compounds from a CO2 feedstock. Ultimately, it might be possible to tune the copper foam toward a specific desired compound.
Palmore says she’s amazed by the fact that there’s still more to be learned about copper.
“People have studied electrocatalysis with copper for a couple decades now,” she says. “It’s remarkable that we can still make alterations to it that affect what’s produced.”
“The goal is to find ways to produce some of the world’s largest-volume chemicals from a sustainable carbon source that the Earth not only has in excess but urgently needs to reduce,” says Palmore, who leads the Center for the Capture and Conversion of CO2.
“This is a way for us as scientists to begin thinking of how we produce industrial chemicals in more sustainable ways and control costs at the same time. The cost of commodity chemicals is going nowhere but up as long as production is dependent on fossil fuels.”
The Center for Capture and Conversion of CO2 is a Center for Chemical Innovation funded by the National Science Foundation. The study appears in the journal ACS Catalysis.
*Image of “copper” via Shutterstock