Scientists at Cornell University have dusted off an archaic electrochemical equation – now 120 years old. The goal is to manage atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert the gas into a useful products.
The team’s work has been published in the journal ACS Catalysis.
The calculation – called the Cottrell equation for chemist Frederick Gardner Cottrell, who developed it in 1903 – can help researchers today understand the different reactions carbon dioxide can take when electrochemistry is applied and pulsed on a laboratory bench.
The electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide presents an opportunity to turn the gas from an environmental liability into a feedstock for chemicals or a way to store renewable electricity in the form of chemical bonds, as nature does.
Lead author Rileigh Casebolt DiDomenico, a PhD student in chemical engineering at Cornell under the supervision of Professor Tobias Hanrath, provided the background: “For carbon dioxide, the better we understand the reaction pathways, the better we can control the reaction. – that’s what we crave in the long run. If we have better control over the reaction, then we can do what we want, when we want to do it. The Cottrell equation is the tool that helps us to get there.
The equation allows a researcher to identify and control experimental parameters to take carbon dioxide and convert it into useful carbon products as ethylene, ethane or ethanol.
Professor Hanrath pointed out that many researchers today use advanced computational methods to provide a detailed atomistic picture of the processes on the catalyst surface, but these methods often involve several nuanced assumptions, making it difficult to compare directly with the experiences.
“The magnificence of this old equation is that there are very few assumptions,” Hanrath said. “If you put in experimental data, you get a better sense of truth. It’s an old classic. This is the part that I thought was beautiful.
DiDomenico said, “Because it is older, the Cottrell equation has been a forgotten technique. It’s classic electrochemistry. Bringing it to the fore in people’s minds has been cool. And I think this equation will help other electrochemists to study their own systems.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, a Cornell Energy Systems Institute-Corning Graduate Fellowship, and the Cornell Engineering Learning Initiative.
The idea of recycling CO2 is appealing. But the idea of “managing” CO2 in the atmosphere is a bit alarming. It is an idea where we find the “Experts” who will decide on behalf of everyone. These are the questions of who, what, why and when, where and how. Now the “experts” tell us that the disaster is only a few years away, after 50 years about the same and wrongly so. Trusting them with the fuel of life on earth is, well, alarming.
On the other hand! The atmosphere is approaching half of a CO2 content that some believe to be optimal. Thus, the possibility of recycling CO2 becomes possible without great threat. Recycling CO2 would place humanity in a current planetary carbon cycle. This could reduce the need to use fossil fuels exclusively. More resources is a good thing.
There is a catch. It takes electricity to reform the CO2. We are not told how this might figure into the cost of new products. The idea could die from a shortage of electric power, as the onslaught of electric vehicle push has yet to really take off. Last summer some people (California) didn’t have enough power to go around.
It is not science to blame, neither industry nor consumers. But political coercion is going to be a big problem, and soon.
By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel
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