New Carbon Dioxide Conversion Process Yields…Carbon Monoxide!

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We’re pretty excited about this new carbon dioxide conversion process from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, first of all because we love seeing our tax dollars at work and second of all because it involves a room-temperature process that results in carbon monoxide. Now, that might not seem like such a big deal, but once you have carbon monoxide in hand you can make methanol and liquid hydrocarbons to replace petroleum fuels.

Recycling some greenhouse gas is another plus, so come to think of it we like the idea of putting excess carbon dioxide to good use rather than sequestering it somewhere for someone else to deal with sometime in the future. But, that’s just us. If you have some thoughts about engineered carbon sequestration give us a holler in the comment thread.

carbon dioxide conversion
Carbon dioxide conversion (cropped) courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The Brookhaven Carbon Dioxide Conversion Process

The Brookhaven carbon dioxide conversion process is significant because it solves a couple of obstacles to using electricity to power the operation. Potentially, you could use wind or solar-generated electricity but that only makes sense if your conversion process is efficient enough.

For an electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion process to make sense commercially, the secret sauce would be a catalyst that can facilitate a high rate of activity while cutting the energy input needed down to the bone.

There are already some options at hand, but according to Brookhaven the catalysts that are most efficient are too much of a good thing in terms of commercial development because they result in too many different products.

On the other hand, the carbon dioxide conversion catalysts with good specificity are too slow, or require too much energy.

The Brookhaven solution is an ionic liquid, which is a salt kind of like table salt but it has a liquid form at room temperature. In electrochemical terms, ionic liquids are composed of positive and negative charges, which makes them useful as electrolytes (electrolyte is fancyspeak for electricity conductor).

Ionic liquids caught Brookhaven’s eye because there are already indications that they can improve the energy efficiency of electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion.

The use of a homogeneous catalyst (meaning that the reactants and catalyst are both dissolved in a liquid) was also attractive because such catalysts are known to result in a narrower range of products.

Here’s how the team attributes its success:

The reason for the improvement, the scientists suspect, is a special interaction between one of the ionic liquid’s ions and an intermediate form of the catalyst that results in a lowering of the activation energy required for the reaction.

By the way if you think you’ve been hearing more about ionic liquids lately, you’re not hearing things. The unique properties of ionic liquids have been leading to many new applications in clean energy tech, including EV batteries and biofuels.

Another Route To Carbon Dioxide Conversion

The Brookhaven breakthrough is in its early stages, so don’t hold your breath for commercialization. The team is looking into further study of the ionic liquid-enhanced process using other ionic liquids and homogeneous catalysts, which could eventually lead to the production of other other useful products aside from carbon monoxide.

Meanwhile, there is another pathway to carbon dioxide through the microbial fermentation angle, so now would be a good time to catch up with LanzaTech.

We started following the company back in 2010 when it was based in New Zealand. It recently moved to Illinois on the heels of a zillion-dollar US Energy Department grant (okay, so more like $4 million) through the agency’s ARPA-E cutting edge funding arm.

LanzaTech has been following the microbial fermentation route, applying its technology to carbon-rich waste gases from steel mills and other industrial operations.

Us taxpayers aren’t the only new friends LanzaTech has been making. Earlier this spring, the venture capital unit of Siemens just plunked down an investment in LanzaTech, which it’s billing as “a US-based technology leader in the biological generation of fuels and basic chemicals from industrial waste gases.”

The Siemens investment is part of a $60 million round of funding aimed at helping LanzaTech to fine tune its process for the commercial market.


The company is also looking to expand its product line, which right now includes fuel as well as butadiene and propylene, which are precursors to nylon and plastics manufacturing.

As for commercialization, with a little assist from Siemens the expectation is that LanzaTech’s first commercial plants will be up and running in 2015.

We’ve also been following another US company called Newlight Technologies. Newlight is also on the verge of commercializing its microbe-based conversion process with a focus on the plastics market, billing its product as “carbon negative plastic.”

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3152 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

9 thoughts on “New Carbon Dioxide Conversion Process Yields…Carbon Monoxide!

  • Cool stuff.

    Catalysis is hard. Surface chemistry is harder. I’m still amazed that after 30 years its still sort of trial and error. Catalysis is the study of catalytic reactions, where an ingredient is used in a reaction, but that ingredient isn’t consumed. It just sits there, like platinum dispersed in a ceramic catalytic converter. Catalysis basically just lowers the activation energy necessary for the reaction to turn products into reactants.

    Surface chemistry still seems like alchemy to me. It’s the study of what happens at the surface of a catalytic reaction. Why molecules compete and do stuff on the active site (the surface of the catalyst). Blah, blah, blah.

    We need our smart young scientists and engineers to quit develop of useless smartphone apps in Silicon Valley and go into catalysis and surface chemistry.

    End of rant. Oh, nice article Tina. What ever the application of this technology, be it stationary or mobile, it is pretty cool.

  • Another productive international collaboration.

    One advantage of publicly-financed research is that the incentives to hype the results are much weaker. Brookhaven describe the work cautiously as a “promising approach” not “earth-shattering breakthrough with free magic ponies” as startups tend to do.

    The catalyst is a compound of the rare metal rhenium. Wikipedia: “Rhenium is among the most expensive of metals, with an average price of approximately US$4,575 per kilogram”. For this process to work at industrial scale, they will probably need to find a cheaper catalyst. The chemical making the ionic liquid appears to be a compound of boron, carbon, and nitrogen, all cheap and abundant elements. Still, it’s very early days for what could turn into a biggie.

  • If CO2 is sequested then it is removed from the atmosphere. If it is used to make liquid fuel then it is going to re-enter the atmosphere, so generally speaking I would prefer to see CO2 sequested than made into a burnable liquid. The CO2 released into the atmosphere from burning the liquid (or using it in fuel cells) could be captured again, but currently the world lacks a $70+ carbon price that would be required to make atmospheric capture economical.

    • IMO, any product made from “smokestack CO2” should be outside of consideration. Going that route just increases the amount of fossil fuel we will burn.

      If we had no options then ‘double using’ carbon would be acceptable. Double use and conservation might get us into the 40% – 70% reduction range. But we have very good options that leave sequestered carbon underground. Where it belongs.

      • With externalities properly priced in it would all sort itself out, but until then… Well, just because you make envionmentally friendly garden fertilizer out of clubbed seals doesn’t make it environmentally sound to club them. But using CO2 that is being emitted anyway is a wash, it’s just that if we want to keep a moderating stable climate it shouldn’t be emitted in the first place unless the emitters pay the full cost of removing it again.

        • I doubt we are going to put a price on carbon in the US. At least not soon. Our politics are as screwed as are yours.

          Our best route for cleaning our grid is via the market. Renewables need to force fossil fuels into bankruptcy. Creating a use, a market, for smokestack carbon would probably allow coal and NG to hang on longer.

          • I pretty confident the value of CO2 will never rise high enough to make any real difference to the economics of fossil fuels. Especially CO2 from coal. Getting clean feedstock from that filth is going to be expensive. (As carbon capture efforts for coal plants have shown.)

          • Methane “burned” in fuel cells should give off a pretty pure stream of CO2, but the most logical places for them (if anywhere) are small units in the basments of buildings where they can provide hot water and heating as well as electricity, so collecting the CO2 from them is probably not very feasible and their use is going to be quite intermittent.

  • There have been volumes written over the last 50 years on reduction of CO2, and much of this work has been electrochemical and photo-electrochemical. The article mentioned above uses a catalyst for electrochemical CO2 reduction that was first reported in 1985 and ’86 independently by each of two well-known chemists. What is new here is that by using a liquid salt rather than acetonitrile and a dissolved electrolyte, the authors observe a modest rate enhancement and modest drop in overvoltage for reduction to CO. Very little new here. Reduction of CO2 still makes very little thermodynamic sense for fuels, certainly compared to using renewable electricity directly to drive an EV fleet.

    It’s such a waste of time wading through this kind of overblown crap to see if there is actually something of note.

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