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    Breakthrough for Scientists Converting Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

    New catalyst makes process 64 times more efficient, but experimental conditions still aren’t commercially viable.

    Chinese scientists have discovered a new catalyst that could revolutionize the rate at which carbon dioxide can be converted into methanol, an official publication of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported Wednesday.

    The new research from scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China and the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at the Microscale, both in eastern Anhui province, was published Monday in the academic journal Nature Energy. The experimenters found that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced from burning fossil fuels, can be broken down 64 times more efficiently when nitrogen is introduced to the cobalt nanosheets — two-dimensional molecular lattices — used to facilitate the chemical reaction.

    The team of scientists believes that deriving alternative fuels from adding hydrogen to carbon dioxide — a process called hydrogenation — in this way can not only mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce our reliance on fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

    “Carbon dioxide hydrogenation turns waste into treasure,” Zeng Jie, the head of the research team, told Sixth Tone. “If [methanol] were to start replacing fossil fuels, this would change the landscape of energy use.”

    In addition to being cleaner than traditional fuels, methanol is relatively inexpensive to produce. It’s also less flammable — and therefore safer — than gasoline.

    However, the carbon dioxide hydrogenation reaction must be carried out under specific energy-intensive conditions: at a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius and a pressure over three times greater than normal atmospheric levels. Though these difficult-to-achieve conditions mean the process is not yet able to be carried out on an industrial scale, Zeng and his team believe the new discovery is an important step toward reducing the experiment’s energy consumption.

    “These scientists have broken through the bottleneck of low efficiency found with traditional cobalt catalysts,” Sun Jian, an associate professor of chemical physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone. But until the reaction can be carried out at more manageable conditions, Sun added, “it will be difficult to find large-scale applications.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: An industrial chimney spouts flames at a coking plant in Huaibei, Anhui province, Sept. 26, 2015. Wu He/VCG)