Scientists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany and the University of New South Wales in Australia have used nanoparticles to convert carbon dioxide into valuable raw materials. The scientists have adopted the principle from enzymes that produce complex molecules in multi-step reactions. The team transferred this mechanism to metallic nanoparticles, also known as nanozymes. The chemists used carbon dioxide to produce ethanol and propanol, which are common raw materials for the chemical, fuel and beverage industries.

Research team from left: Corina Andronescu, Wolfgang Schuhmann, Patrick Wilde, J. Justin Gooding and Peter O’Mara. Image Credit: Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Click image for the largest view.

The team led by Professor Wolfgang Schuhmann from the Center for Electrochemistry in Bochum and Professor Corina Andronescu from the University of Duisburg-Essen, together with the Australian team led by Professor Justin Gooding and Professor Richard Tilley, reported the results in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Wolfgang Schuhmann said, “Transferring the cascade reactions of the enzymes to catalytically active nanoparticles could be a decisive step in the design of catalysts.”

Enzymes have different active centers for cascade reactions, which are specialized in certain reaction steps. For example, a single enzyme can produce a complex product from a relatively simple starting material. In order to imitate this concept, the researchers synthesized a particle with a silver core surrounded by a porous layer of copper. The silver core serves as the first active center, the copper layer as the second. Intermediate products formed at the silver core then react in the copper layer to form more complex molecules, which ultimately then leave the particle.

In the present work, the German-Australian team showed that the electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide can take place with the help of the nanozymes. Several reaction steps on the silver core and copper shell transform the starting material into ethanol or propanol.

“There are also other nanoparticles that can produce these products from CO2 without the cascade principle,” said Wolfgang Schuhmann. “However, they require considerably more energy.”

The researchers now want to further develop the concept of the cascade reaction in nanoparticles in order to be able to selectively produce even more valuable products such as ethylene or butanol.

One has to be quite pleased with the surprise this news offers. Now two reactions and only time will tell how many in number will be developed over time. Catalyst research now looks like its melded into synthetic enzymes now. This should very likely revolutionize chemistry over the coming years. There will be products not yet imagined, processes far more developed than now and a new abundance of ways to use our resources and reuse them, too.

Two generations ago the future was in plastics and polymers, one generation ago semiconductors, and now it looks like catalysts and synthesized enzymes. Wow.


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