University of Nottingham researchers have successfully transformed CO2 into methanol by shining sunlight on single atoms of copper deposited on a light-activated material, a discovery that paves the way for creating new green fuels.

The international team of researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, University of Queensland and University of Ulm have research has been published in the Sustainable Energy & Fuels Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The material design is made up of copper anchored on nanocrystalline carbon nitride. The copper atoms are nested within the nanocrystalline structure, which allows electrons to move from carbon nitride to CO2, an essential step in the production of methanol from CO2 under the influence of solar irradiation.

In photocatalysis, light is shone on a semiconductor material that excites electrons, enabling them to travel through the material to react with CO2 and water, leading to a variety of useful products, including methanol, which is a green fuel. Despite recent progress, this process suffers from a lack of efficiency and selectivity.

Lab demonstration of CO2 reformed to methanol. The press release page has a 12 second video of the formation taking place. The study paper, open access as of posting has a very informative “Introduction” starting the paper’s discussion.

Though, it is possible to convert CO2 to useful products, traditional thermal methods rely on hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels. It is important to develop alternative methods based on photo- and electrocatalysis, taking advantage of the sustainable solar energy and abundance of omnipresent water.

Dr Madasamy Thangamuthu, a research fellow in the School of Chemistry, University of Nottingham, who co-led the research team, said, “There is a large variety of different materials used in photocatalysis. It is important that the photocatalyst absorbs light and separates charge carriers with high efficiency. In our approach, we control the material at the nanoscale. We developed a new form of carbon nitride with crystalline nanoscale domains that allow efficient interaction with light as well as sufficient charge separation.”

The researchers devised a process of heating carbon nitride to the required degree of crystallinity, maximizing the functional properties of this material for photocatalysis. Using magnetron sputtering, they deposited atomic copper in a solventless process, allowing intimate contact between the semiconductor and metal atoms.

Tara LeMercier, a PhD student who carried out the experimental work at the University of Nottingham, School of Chemistry, said: “We measured the current generated by light and used it as a criterion to judge the quality of the catalyst. Even without copper, the new form of carbon nitride is 44 times more active than traditional carbon nitride. However, to our surprise, the addition of only 1 mg of copper per 1 g of carbon nitride quadrupled this efficiency. Most importantly the selectivity changed from methane, another greenhouse gas, to methanol, a valuable green fuel.”

Professor Andrei Khlobystov, School of Chemistry, University of Nottingham, said: “Carbon dioxide valorization holds the key for achieving the net-zero ambition of the UK. It is vitally important to ensure the sustainability of our catalyst materials for this important reaction. A big advantage of the new catalyst is that it consists of sustainable elements — carbon, nitrogen and copper — all highly abundant on our planet.”

This invention represents a significant step towards a deep understanding of photocatalytic materials in CO2 conversion. It opens a pathway for creating highly selective and tuneable catalysts where the desired product could be dialed up by controlling the catalyst at the nanoscale.

This work is funded by the EPSRC Programme Grant ‘Metal atoms on surfaces and interfaces (MASI) for sustainable future’ which is set to develop catalyst materials for the conversion of three key molecules – carbon dioxide, hydrogen and ammonia – crucially important for economy and environment. MASI catalysts are made in an atom-efficient way to ensure sustainable use of chemical elements without depleting supplies of rare elements and making most of the earth’s abundant elements, such as carbon and base metals.


This might be the most important news in decades. If a little sunshine exposed to CO2 and water can produce a fuel and chemical precursor the world’s energy “problems” would be solved. Using recycled CO2 and water over and over again endlessly using sunshine to power the process would end the global warming issue, the contests for production, economic power, resource control and wild variations in price.

That is such a list of wonder that its very hard to imagine it could ever be possible.

But we are another step closer. We don’t know how long nature took to discover the value of hydrogen and carbon linked into molecules . . .we do know it’s been working for life on earth for hundreds of millions of years.


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