New Process Turns Greenhouse Gas into Ethylene

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At the University of Cincinnati, a team led by Professor Jingjie Wu has developed a smarter method for turning carbon dioxide into useful stuff like plastic. This not only could make some cool products but also helps in the fight against global warming. They tweaked a copper catalyst, which is a sort of chemical helper, to make this process better at transforming CO2 into ethylene—which is a major part of plastic and a bunch of other things we use every day.

Ethylene is often considered the most important chemical on the planet. It’s everywhere – in clothes, car antifreeze, and even in the vinyl records you might have at home. The companies that make this stuff whipped up a massive 225 million metric tons of it in 2022 alone.

Professor Jingjie Wu and his team are working on a game-changer for making plastics. Usually, we need fossil fuels to create ethylene, a key ingredient in plastics, but this process pumps a lot of CO2 into the air. Wu’s method could flip the script by using clean energy and actually taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, not adding more. He says that ethylene is super important around the world, and if we can make it without adding to the pollution, that’s a big win for everyone.

Professor Wu’s students at UC, including top student Zhengyuan Li, teamed up with some other big-time science places like Rice University and a few national labs to work on this cool project. Zhengyuan Li, who’s really smart and hardworking, even snagged an awesome award from the College of Engineering last year for the impressive stuff he’s doing as a grad student.

So, when the scientists mess around with CO2, they usually end up with two main things: ethylene, which goes into plastic, and ethanol, which can be used for fuel. But these UC brainiacs found out that by tweaking their copper tool (the catalyst), they can get more of the plastic stuff, ethylene. Zhengyuan Li put it like this: “Digging into how the process gives us ethylene instead of ethanol shows us how to crank up the ethylene production.” Professor Wu is also pumped about the results, adding, “We boosted the ethylene creation by half, which is awesome because making just one product is way more efficient.”

The next big hurdle for the University of Cincinnati team is to tweak their setup so it’s ready for the real world. Right now, the system starts losing its oomph when unwanted stuff like potassium hydroxide begins to build up on the copper part that speeds up the reaction. “We’ve got to get our gear to last longer for it to be used by businesses. We’re looking to beef up the durability and aim for it to work non-stop for over ten years,” Zhengyuan Li explained. Professor Wu has his eyes on the prize too, focusing on how this tech can change the game for making chemicals in a more eco-friendly way. “We’re on a mission to make chemical production kinder to the planet by using renewable energy and earth-friendly materials,” Wu shared. “Turning carbon dioxide into ethylene using electricity is a big step toward making the industry less damaging to the environment.”