Wake Forest University scientists have created a new chemical process that does in the lab what trees do in nature, convert carbon dioxide into usable chemicals or fuels.

The research paper describing the new chemical process “Colloidal Silver Diphosphide Nanocrystals as Low Overpotential Catalysts for CO2 Reduction to Tunable Syngas,” has been published online in the journal Nature Communications.

This new, carbon-neutral process, created by researchers at Wake Forest, uses silver diphosphide (AgP2) as a novel catalyst that takes carbon dioxide pollution from manufacturing plants and converts it by recycling it into a material called syngas, from which the liquid fuel used in manufacturing is made. The new catalyst allows the conversion of carbon dioxide into fuel with minimal energy loss compared to the current state-of-the-art process, according to the Wake Forest researchers.

Scott Geyer, the corresponding author, said, “This catalyst makes the process much more efficient. Silver diphosphide is the key that makes all the other parts work. It reduces energy loss in the process by a factor of three.”

Silver has been considered to date as the best catalyst for this process. Adding phosphorus removes electron density from the silver, making the process more controllable and reducing energy waste.

In the future, Geyer sees being able to power this process with solar energy, directly converting sunlight into fuel. The more efficient the chemical conversion process becomes, the more likely solar energy – instead of coal or other non-renewable energy sources – can be used to make fuel.

“People make syngas out of coal all the time,” Geyer said. “But we’re taking something you don’t want, carbon dioxide pollution, and turning it into something you want, fuel for industry.”

Geyer, whose lab focuses on understanding the role phosphorus plays in chemical reactions, is an assistant professor of chemistry at Wake Forest. The team that produced this paper includes Hui Li, who led the work as a Ph.D. student in Geyer’s lab, plus former Wake Forest undergraduate Zachary Hood; Ph.D. in chemistry student Shiba Adhikari; and Ph.D. student in physics student Chaochao Dun, who all have stayed connected with the program through their professional posts.

“The ability to collaborate with a network of outstanding Wake Forest University graduates who are now at top universities and national laboratories across the United States has been essential in preparing this work as it allows us to access one-of-a-kind instrumentation facilities at their current institutions,” Geyer said.

This looks quite promising. The concept of recovering your fuel cost back into saleable product does have quite an interesting allure. The merits are going to hinge on capital cost and operating efficiencies. Make money from effluent and the industrial output of CO2 might very well drop dramatically.

Then there is the press release noting everyone involved by name, which is unusual, and that the team is still working together and progressing the work. This too is quite an encouraging sign that this team may well be on to something quite worthwhile.


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