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New photocatalyst converts carbon dioxide to 99% pure fuel

A KAIST research team led by Professor Hyunjoon Song of the Department of Chemistry developed a metal oxide nanocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide to 99% pure methane. This technology directly uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into methane, which is more efficient in terms of energy storage capacity, compared to the conventional way of storing the electricity produced by solar cells in batteries. The research team used cheap catalytic materials to significantly enhance the reaction efficiency and selectivity of the chemical energy storage method.

This research was conducted as a joint research project with Professor Ki Min Nam at Mokpo National University with co-first authors Dr. Kyung-Lyul Bae and Ph.D. candidates Jinmo Kim and Chan Kyu Lim. The study was published in Nature Communications on November 7.

Although there is growing interest in sunlight as an energy resource, its usage has been limited to daytime and the power output varies with the weather. If sunlight could be directly converted to chemical energy, such as fuel, the limitations of energy storage and its usage could be overcome. In particular, the usage of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide, a main cause of the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere, is of great interest since both energy and environmental issues can be addressed. However, the stability of carbon dioxide made it difficult to convert it to other molecules. Thus, there was a need for a catalyst with enhanced efficiency and selectivity.

Professor Song's team synthesized zinc oxide nanoparticles, often used in sun cream. The nanoparticles were then bound to copper oxide as single particles, forming a colloidal form of zinc oxide-copper oxide nanoparticles. Zinc oxides produce high energy electrons using light, and this energy is used to convert carbon dioxide into methane. Further, zinc oxide can also produce electrons with light and transfer the electrons to copper oxide. Similar to the principles of photosynthesis in leaves, the electron transfer reaction could be maintained for a long time. As a consequence, although the reaction was conducted in aqueous solution, methane of 99% purity could be obtained from carbon dioxide.

Conventional heterogeneous photocatalysts were in solid powder form with irregular structures and were not dispersed in water. Professor Song's team used a nanochemical synthesis method to control the structure of the catalyst particles to be regular and maintained over a large surface area. This led to increasing carbon dioxide conversion activity by hundreds of fold in solution compared to existing catalysts.

Professor Song said, "A long time will be needed for the commercialization of the direct conversion reaction of carbon dioxide using sunlight. However, the precise control of catalyst structures at nanoscale would enhance the efficiency of photocatalyst reactions." He continued, "Applying this method to various phtocatalysts will maximize the catalysts performance."

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Source: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)