Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.
However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.
“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.
The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.
Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.
Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.
Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.