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New NSF grant seeks to turn carbon dioxide into useful products

Monday, November 21, 2016

When we burn fossil fuels to power our cars and homes, carbon dioxide spews into the atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun like a thick wool sweater.  While a warm sweater is nice in the wintertime, rising global temperatures pose significant risks to communities around the world.

Researchers in the labThree faculty members at the University of Kansas hope to invent a new way to turn carbon dioxide into useful fuels and chemicals instead of just venting it into the air as waste.  

Kevin Leonard, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, James Blakemore, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, and Bala Subramaniam, Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, recently received an award from the National Science Foundation to fund research in this area.

The three-year, $450,000 award is part on an initiative organized by NSF known as SusChEM. This program fosters research in sustainable chemistry, engineering and materials.

The team will develop a first-of-its-kind apparatus that combines specialized electrodes with a vessel that can operate under pressure. They will then pump pressurized carbon dioxide into the vessel, where it will dissolve in a mixture of other ingredients needed for the reaction, expanding their volume. This is predicted to lead to more carbon dioxide in a form where it can be more readily converted into methanol or other fuels and chemicals with the help of catalysts and electricity.

“The novelty of this approach lies in the fact that carbon dioxide will serve as both co-solvent and reactant,” said Leonard.  

The researchers also hope that their approach will block unwanted byproducts, like hydrogen gas, from forming. Achieving this goal will overcome a major barrier that currently limits the effectiveness of electrochemical reactors.  Ultimately, the research will reveal how the process works, and offer a proof-of-concept for the feasibility of this unique experimental approach.  

The project will train graduate and undergraduate students, and share hands-on science activities with children in Kansas to teach them about mitigating the negative effects of greenhouse gases.

Much of the research will be conducted at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC), which partners with industry to invent cleaner, safer, energy-efficient technologies that protect the planet and human health.

Leonard and his colleagues’ research is still far from commercialization, but if and when it is ready, CEBC’s active industry partners will have first access to license the new technology.

--Story by Claudia Bode

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