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The mass addition of CO2 to the atmosphere through increased energy demands is pivotal to a realm of environmental costs. This problem links everything from searching for cleaner energy production methods to helping to fashion a more sustainable lifestyle. Recent advancements in chemisty, however, may provide an answer to the excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

Chemistry buffs at Princeton University are applying their expertise to a clean energy project that converts CO2—well recognized as one of the most prominent greenhouse gases—into methanol.  This translates into effectively creating an organic chemical by-product (usable as a fuel, industrial solvent, or an initial substance for more complex chemicals) from an over-abundant atmospheric waste product. 

The technology is impressive, especially so from the laboratory perspective. Briefly stated, the process uses light to hit a semiconductor to excite its electrons, which move to the surface of the semiconductor and into surrounding water.  A catalyst carries electrons to the CO2 where it attracts hydrogen from the water, forming methanol and oxygen.   This process, termed “reverse combustion”, allows for the formation of a carbon-carbon bond in the product of the chemical reaction, rendering it useful for an array of commercial applications.

Looking beyond all the in-depth science of this innovation, it may have struck your mind that any plant-life provides a natural factory for diverting CO2 into a usable chemical product.  This, of course, is accomplished via photosynthesis.  Unfortunately, forests and plants cannot possibly absorb all the CO2 generated by humanity’s unfathomable consumption of fossil fuels. 

Although it demands much more time and money to be developed, the Princeton team’s proposition strikes me as an essential breakthrough.  If eventually coupled as a required component into the manufacturing of vehicles, or to filter and recycle the gases spewed out of industrial factories, our anthropogenic CO2 forcing can be significantly limited.

Posted
AuthorJeffrey Leon