Continuing UConn’s commitment to climate change mitigation, a team of researchers is applying groundbreaking techniques to convert carbon dioxide emissions into renewable energy sources.
The researchers’ findings were recently published the Royal Society of Chemistry’s esteemed Energy and Environmental Science Journal.
Environmental engineering professor Baikun Li led a 12-person interdisciplinary team exploring the process of electrochemical CO2 reduction. In addition to supporting UConn’s priority research goal of climate change mitigation, it also achieved an interdisciplinary collaboration comprised of several schools and colleges. The effort featured faculty and grad students from environmental engineering, materials science and engineering, electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, and more.
“Climate change is one of the world’s most pressing challenges,” says Pamir Alpay, UConn’s Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship and a co-author on the manuscript whose group worked on the atomistic modeling of the surface reactions of catalytic processes. “This study works to reduce our carbon footprint through carefully designed experimental work with sophisticated multi-scale modeling. “The resulting reduction in carbon dioxide benefits our planet and exemplifies UConn’s research priorities.”
Each year, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes can remove. The carbon dioxide can remain for thousands of years, trapping heat and warming the Earth’s surface.
In 2019, Li and the team set out to understand the fundamental mechanisms of CO2 reduction. Electrochemical CO2 reduction is the conversion of carbon dioxide into a hydrocarbon fuel through a chemical reaction. It represents a future possibility where humans could generate gasoline, aviation fuel, and other useful substances using carbon dioxide captured from the air — reducing greenhouse gas emissions while providing a sustainable energy source.
“What we really want to achieve in the future is the complete cycle of carbon,” says Xingyu Wang, an environmental engineering Ph.D. student who worked on the team. “One of the biggest questions we aim to explore is, ‘How can we utilize the carbon dioxide that already exists in the atmosphere without exploiting existing resources here on Earth?’”
It’s a question that many research studies aim to answer. But few break down electrochemical CO2 reduction to the most fundamental level: the reaction.
The chemical reaction that converts CO2 gas into other chemical feedstocks happens under the action of a metal catalyst. Polymers bonded to the surface of the catalyst help stabilize and promote the reaction by keeping metal nanoparticles in place.
For example, Li says that copper is a well-known catalyst for CO2 reduction, but it does not absorb CO2 easily. By coating the surface of the copper with a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the team was able to change the polarity of the surface and improve CO2 gas absorption.
“In our study, we laid the foundation for the exploration of other polymers,” says Li. “Later on, other researchers can use the fundamental modeling in our work to study other molecule polymers based on what we have discovered so far.”
Another value of this study is its cost effectiveness. CO2 reduction can be achieved through expensive manufacturing pathways or relatively simple methods like this one, says Wang.
“Our study shows that we do not need to rely on the most expensive methods. We can achieve the same goal through this mixture of organic and inorganic material,” Wang says.
The team is one of many interdisciplinary collaborations across UConn that addess climate change mitigation and seek sustainable fuel sources. Li and her team have won a Convergence Award for Research in Interdisciplinary Centers (CARIC) for their work across quantum technology and climate change. The team is working with the Physics Department to develop an animation of the process for educational purposes within the industry.
“The broad impact of this methodology doesn’t only apply to CO2 reduction,” Li says. “It has countless applications, but we used CO2 reduction as an example of how we can use quantum level modeling for potential future research.”