By: Jeff Celaje
Global warming threatens our planet with important climate changes. Scientists have estimated that global temperatures have risen by 0.8 ᵒC since 1880, and some fear that global temperatures will rise by 4 ᵒC by the end of the century. This rise in temperature could bring coastal areas flooded by melting sea ice, crops destroyed by heat waves and droughts, and so on. The reality of this threat is being recognized by the world’s governments: the Climate Policy Initiative reported that for 2012, that the world spent an average of $1 billion a day on global warming.
Global warming is, in large part, caused by the combustion of fossil fuels for energy. This results in the production of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). The burning of fossil fuels has already caused CO2 in the atmosphere to rise—from 285 parts per million in 1880, to 401 parts per million today. In light of this, one way to address the global warming problem is to look for alternative fuels that would allow us to curtail CO2 formation.
One such alternative fuel is methanol.
As a Ph. D. student in Prof. Travis Williams’ laboratory at USC’s Department of Chemistry and the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, one of my projects is to develop new catalysts for the conversion of CO2 to methanol. With this reaction, we are attempting to take the very greenhouse gas responsible for global warming and turn it into an alternative fuel that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Our lab group has synthesized about a dozen new potential catalysts for conversion of CO2 to methanol. And while we have been looking hard for the right conditions with which to accomplish this reaction, we have thus far been unsuccessful.
However, in one of our model studies, we have found that one of the catalysts did decompose formic acid into hydrogen (H2) and CO2. This reaction is important because formic acid is also a potential alternative fuel; hydrogen liberated from formic acid decomposition can be used in fuel cells. In other words, formic acid can be used as a hydrogen storage material.
Currently, hydrogen storage technologies are plagued by high costs and safety issues. But formic acid is a promising new hydrogen storage material because it is inexpensive, nontoxic, and an easily handled liquid. Importantly, the technology to efficiently generate formic acid from CO2 is already well developed; thus with this second reaction in place, formic acid holds the promise of being a carbon neutral fuel (i.e. it can be used as fuel with no net generation of CO2). This is the basis of my research this summer as a 2014 WIES Sonosky Fellow.
Despite a large amount of research by the scientific community, efficient catalysts for decomposing formic acid into hydrogen and CO2 have not really been developed. But we have found that our catalyst is capable of this more efficient process. The catalyst works efficiently under mild conditions, it is robust and can be reused without regeneration, and it does not decompose upon exposure to air or water. Moreover, the reaction proceeds with near perfect selectivity, producing only H2 and CO2 without other challenging byproducts.
We are currently working to patent and commercialize this technology and preparing a manuscript for publication. So at this point in this research project, the hard part is over. My efforts in the lab are now simply focused on the details of understanding how this catalyst works. For example, I have been collecting data on the “kinetics” of this catalyst when different concentrations are used. Collecting these data is actually a lot of fun—and I can enjoy knowing that the results of a really wonderful part of my Ph.D. studies will end up very well.
Jeff is a 2014 Norma and Jerol Sonosky Fellow: a WIES graduate fellowship dedicated to environmental themes, alternative energy, and sustainable solutions to environmental challenges. To learn more about Jeff’s research, visit the Williams Lab in the USC Chemistry Department.