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UD researchers have identified a specialized
capability in this metal--bismuth--called catalytic plasticity, which can be
harnessed to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuels and industrial
chunk of metal sitting on a table in Joel Rosenthals office at the
University of Delaware looks like it should belong in a wizards pocket.
Shiny silver with shocks of pink and splashes of gold, its called
bismuth, and its currently used to make products ranging from shotgun
pellets to cosmetics and antacids, including Pepto-Bismol.
But the research conducted by Rosenthal, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is expanding bismuths
repertoirehes identified a kind of magic in the metal that may be just
what the doctor ordered for Planet Earth. He says it could help reduce
rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and provide sustainable
routes to making fuels.
Rosenthal and his team in the Department of Chemistry and
Biochemistry have discovered that bismuth has an unusual property that
can be harnessed to help the environmentas a chemical spark or
catalyst for converting carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, into
liquid fuels and industrial chemicals. The findings are reported in ACS
Catalysis, a journal published by the American Chemical Society.
Rosenthals team also has filed a patent on the work.
Rosenthal refers to bismuths
specialized capability as catalytic plasticity. When an electrical
current is applied to a bismuth film in a bath of salty liquids
containing imidazolium and amidinium ions, he and his team can tune
the chemical reaction to convert carbon dioxide to either a liquid fuel
such as gasoline, or to formic acida valuable chemical with many
industrial usesfrom preserving human food and livestock feed, to
manufacturing rubber and leather, artificial flavorings and perfumes.
Traditionally, chemists have needed to create a new catalyst to
promote each different chemical reaction they studied, from steps a to
b, from b to c, and so forth, Rosenthal said, which makes this
approachusing one catalyst that can be tailored or tuned to efficiently
promote multiple types of reactionsparticularly novel.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Joel Rosenthal (right) and postdoctoral fellow Abderrahman Atifi
are working on a new approach to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Were working to push the boundaries of this idea, Rosenthal said.
Our new findings are important from a technological standpointwe think
this platform will allow renewable energy sources such as solar and
wind to drive the direct production of liquid fuels. But more
importantly, we believe this concept of catalytic plasticity signals a
potential paradigm shift, a new way to think about renewable energy
conversion, fuel production and catalysis, in general.
Rosenthal and his team previously showed that bismuth films can be
used in conjunction with certain liquid salts as inexpensive catalysts
for converting carbon dioxide and renewable energy to gaseous fuels such
as carbon monoxide.
In this study, they found they could use the same materials in the
presence of different salts to convert carbon dioxide directly to liquid
Ive been fascinated by the field of catalysis for a long time,
Rosenthal said. Thinking about how you can take something cheap and
plentiful and convert it into something much more useful and valuable
without having to dump a lot of extra energy into it has always captured
my imagination. There are philosophical parallels between catalysis and
the goals of the ancient alchemists. Alchemy is a loaded word, but in
some ways, what we are studying is like modern alchemyefficiently
transforming carbon dioxide to more valuable fuels and chemicals is akin
to trying to convert lead to gold.
What impact could Rosenthals technology have on current carbon dioxide levels?
Its hard to predict the direct impact on those levels, he said.
This technology would allow us to make liquid fuels using renewable
electricity from sunlight and wind. This, in turn, would decrease our
need for conventional petroleum resources, resulting in fewer carbon
This past April, Earths atmosphere attained its highest sustained
levels of carbon dioxide since humans have been monitoring itexceeding
410 parts per million for the entire monthaccording to measurements
made at Hawaiis Mauna Loa Observatory.
Rosenthal has been working on the challenge for nearly eight years and continues marching on.
Finding chemistries to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric levels is important to me, he said.
The research team also included postdoctoral fellow Abderrahman
Atifi; John L. DiMeglio, who received his doctorate from UD and is now a
postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan; and David W. Boyce,
who is now a research consultant.
The work was supported by Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and
Transport (FIRST), an Energy Frontier Research Center located at the
U.S. Department of Energys Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Camille and
Henry Dreyfus postdoctoral fellowship in environmental chemistry to
Atifi, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Article by Tracey Bryant; photos by Evan Krape