Rutgers scientists develop catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into carbon building blocks

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In New Jersey, Rutgers scientists developed catalysts that can convert carbon dioxide into plastics, fabrics, resins and other products. The electrocatalysts are the first materials, aside from enzymes, that can turn carbon dioxide and water into carbon building blocks containing one, two, three or four carbon atoms with more than 99 percent efficiency. Two of the products created by the researchers – methylglyoxal (C3) and 2,3-furandiol (C4) – can be used as precursors for plastics, adhesives and pharmaceuticals. Toxic formaldehyde could be replaced by methylglyoxal, which is safer.

“Our breakthrough could lead to the conversion of carbon dioxide into valuable products and raw materials in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” said study senior author Charles Dismukes, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Previously, scientists showed that carbon dioxide can be electrochemically converted into methanol, ethanol, methane and ethylene with relatively high yields. But such production is inefficient and too costly to be commercially feasible, according to study lead author Karin Calvinho, a chemistry doctoral student in Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies.

However, carbon dioxide and water can be electrochemically converted into a wide array of carbon-based products, using five catalysts made of nickel and phosphorus, which are cheap and abundant, she said.