CO2 conversion offers new opportunities thanks to EU-funded project
As the EU-funded ELCAT ('Electrocatalytic gas-phase conversion of CO2 in confined catalysts') project draws to a close, project partners took stock at a final meeting in Brussels: They agreed that the project had proven the feasibility of gas-phase CO2 conversion in a catalytic process that recycles carbon dioxide into liquid hydrocarbons and alcohols. However, more work is needed before the technology can be put into operation, they said.
The idea behind the ELCAT project, which received around €85,000 in funding under the New and emerging science and technologies (NEST) theme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), was born when researchers at the University of Messina, Italy, observed an electrocatalytic reaction which could be carried out at room temperature and atmospheric pressure: With carbon dioxide confined inside carbon micropores, and electrons and protons flowing to an active catalyst - noble-metal nanoclusters - gaseous carbon dioxide was reduced to a series of hydrocarbons and alcohols.
The products of the reaction were surprisingly similar to those of the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process, a catalysed chemical reaction in which carbon monoxide and hydrogen are converted to a series of hydrocarbons. The FT process has been discussed as a possible source of fuels and raw materials for some time now.
A process that could generate FT-like products in useful quantities - an outcome that cannot be achieved without some difficulty in the FT process - at room temperature and atmospheric pressure could help to considerably reduce carbon dioxide and at the same time generate new raw materials. However, this catalytic reaction created new problems, namely a quick deactivation of the catalyst and poor productivity. In addition, it is a case of gas-phase electrocatalysis, a phenomenon which has barely been studied by scientists, as the focus has traditionally been on the liquid phase.
While this shift from liquid to gas can help to bypass problems such as limited diffusion and productivity, the ELCAT scientists had to cope with new challenges, the former project coordinator, Gabriele Centi of the University of Messina explained to CORDIS News: 'You need to change the type of structure, of electrode because of the change of the conditions', but this opened up new ways to improve the performance and other opportunities such as the production of hydrogen by controlled hydrolysis of the system. Furthermore, 'in gas-phase electrocatalysis, there are basically no limits to temperature,' Mr Centi added. 'In the liquid phase, there are, or you need to work under pressure which is an additional cost. So you open really new possibilities if you go to gas phase.'
Over the past three and a half years, the ELCAT research has focused on these problems as well as the production of suitable carbon nanotubes. The project partners are determined to continue their work, even though the ELCAT project itself will come to an end at the end of February. According to their estimates, electrocatalytic gas-phase conversion of CO2 could be ready for application in about 10 years, and could help to cut global CO2 emissions by 5%, complementing other strategies.
'Carbon storage has its limitations because there are space limitations and in this case, we try to convert this greenhouse gas directly to fuel,' said Siglinda Perathoner of the University of Messina, who is currently in charge of ELCAT project coordination. 'Therefore, it's complementary. But I think it's much better to convert than to store.'
Mr Centi and Ms Perathoner hope that now, after their project has proven the technology's feasibility, others will jump on the bandwagon and help it to advance more quickly. The industry is surely starting to take an interest, Mr Centi stated. 'Up to now, they have only seen this problem of carbon dioxide as a negative cost, but now if they start seeing it as a raw material, they start to be interested,' he said. 'The possibility to convert it to chemicals which can be introduced into all chemical cycles or which can be used as fuel opens up really new perspectives.'
Others have also noticed the project, it seems, as it has been entered in a competition for new solutions for greenhouse gas emission called 'The 25 million dollar idea' set up by the former US Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore, together with British entrepreneur Richard Branson. 'I think there are other projects that are closer to application,' Mr Centi said. 'I think there still is a lot of work to do. But it is interesting that other people believe that this is something that should be on that list.'
Project partners are certainly satisfied with the outcome of the project and so is Dr Monique Smaihi of the European Commission Directorate General for Research, scientific officer in charge of the ELCAT project. The partners had to start their research from scratch and encountered many problems that could not be foreseen, she said. There was still some progress to be made because everything was not solved, but the results - particularly with a view to the versatility of the technology - were very promising,' she concluded.
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Category: Project results
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News attendance at the final ELCAT meeting
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News attendance at the final ELCAT meeting
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