Sun-Powered Chemistry Can Turn Carbon Dioxide into Common Materials

The manufacture of many chemicals important to human health and comfort consumes fossil fuels, thereby contributing to extractive processes, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. A new approach employs sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into these needed chemicals, potentially reducing emissions in two ways: by using the unwanted gas as a raw material and sunlight, not fossil fuels, as the source of energy needed for production.

This process is becoming increasingly feasible thanks to advances in sunlight-activated catalysts, or photocatalysts. In recent years investigators have developed photocatalysts that break the resistant double bond between carbon and oxygen in carbon dioxide. This is a critical first step in creating “solar” refineries that produce useful compounds from the waste gas—including “platform” molecules that can serve as raw materials for the synthesis of such varied products as medicines, detergents, fertilizers and textiles.

Photocatalysts are typically semiconductors, which require high-energy ultraviolet light to generate the electrons involved in the transformation of carbon dioxide. Yet ultraviolet light is both scarce (representing just 5 percent of sunlight) and harmful. The development of new catalysts that work under more abundant and benign visible light has therefore been a major objective. That demand is being addressed by careful engineering of the composition, structure and morphology of existing catalysts, such as titanium dioxide. Although it efficiently converts carbon dioxide into other molecules solely in response to ultraviolet light, doping it with nitrogen greatly lowers the energy required to do so. The altered catalyst now needs only visible light to yield widely used chemicals such as methanol, formaldehyde and formic acid—collectively important in the manufacture of adhesives, foams, plywood, cabinetry, flooring and disinfectants.

At the moment, solar chemical research is occurring mainly in academic laboratories, including at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, run by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; a Netherlands-based collaboration of universities, industry and research and technology organizations called the Sunrise consortium; and the department of heterogeneous reactions at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim, Germany. Some start-ups are working on a different approach to transforming carbon dioxide into useful substances—namely, applying electricity to drive the chemical reactions. Using electricity to power the reactions would obviously be less environmentally friendly than using sunlight if the electricity were derived from fossil-fuel combustion, but reliance on photovoltaics could overcome that drawback.

The advances occurring in the sunlight-driven conversion of carbon dioxide into chemicals are sure to be commercialized and further developed by start-ups or other companies in the coming years. Then the chemical industry—by transforming what today is waste carbon dioxide into valuable products—will move a step closer to becoming part of a true, waste-free, circular economy, as well as helping to make the goal of generating negative emissions a reality.


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