Media Releases

University of Toronto scientists solve puzzle of converting CO₂ emissions to fuel

August 25, 2016

Saving the planet from climate change with a grain of sand

Toron­to, ON – Every year, humans advance cli­mate change and glob­al warm­ing – and quite like­ly our own even­tu­al extinc­tion – by inject­ing about 30 bil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide (CO₂) into the atmos­phere.

A team of sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to (U of T) believes they’ve found a way to con­vert all these emis­sions into ener­gy-rich fuel in a car­bon-neu­tral cycle that uses a very abun­dant nat­ur­al resource: sil­i­con. Sil­i­con, read­i­ly avail­able in sand, is the sev­enth most-abun­dant ele­ment in the uni­verse and the sec­ond most-abun­dant ele­ment in the earth’s crust.

The idea of con­vert­ing CO₂ emis­sions to ener­gy isn’t new: there’s been a glob­al race to dis­cov­er a mate­r­i­al that can effi­cient­ly con­vert sun­light, car­bon diox­ide and water or hydro­gen to fuel for decades.  How­ev­er, the chem­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty of CO₂ has made it dif­fi­cult to find a prac­ti­cal solu­tion.

“A chem­istry solu­tion to cli­mate change requires a mate­r­i­al that is a high­ly active and selec­tive cat­a­lyst to enable the con­ver­sion of CO₂ to fuel. It also needs to be made of ele­ments that are low cost, non-tox­ic and read­i­ly avail­able,” said Geof­frey Ozin, a chem­istry pro­fes­sor in U of T’s Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence, the Cana­da Research Chair in Mate­ri­als Chem­istry and lead of U of T’s Solar Fuels Research Clus­ter.

In an arti­cle in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions pub­lished August 23, Ozin and col­leagues report sil­i­con nanocrys­tals that meet all the cri­te­ria. The hydride-ter­mi­nat­ed sil­i­con nanocrys­tals – nanos­truc­tured hydrides for short – have an aver­age diam­e­ter of 3.5 nanome­tres and fea­ture a sur­face area and opti­cal absorp­tion strength suf­fi­cient to effi­cient­ly har­vest the near-infrared, vis­i­ble and ultra­vi­o­let wave­lengths of light from the sun togeth­er with a pow­er­ful chem­i­cal-reduc­ing agent on the sur­face that effi­cient­ly and selec­tive­ly con­verts gaseous car­bon diox­ide to gaseous car­bon monox­ide.

The poten­tial result: ener­gy with­out harm­ful emis­sions.

“Mak­ing use of the reduc­ing pow­er of nanos­truc­tured hydrides is a con­cep­tu­al­ly dis­tinct and com­mer­cial­ly inter­est­ing strat­e­gy for mak­ing fuels direct­ly from sun­light,” said Ozin.

The U of T Solar Fuels Research Clus­ter is work­ing to find ways and means to increase the activ­i­ty, enhance the scale, and boost the rate of pro­duc­tion. Their goal is a lab­o­ra­to­ry demon­stra­tion unit and, if suc­cess­ful, a pilot solar refin­ery.

In addi­tion to Ozin, col­lab­o­ra­tors on the paper include:

  • Le He, Chenxi Qian, Lau­ra Reyes, Wei Sun and P.Y. Wong – Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence;
  • Abdi­noor Jelle and Jia Jia – Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence, and Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing;
  • Kul­bir Kaur Ghu­man, Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing;
  • Chan­dra Veer Singh – Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing and Depart­ment of Mechan­i­cal & Indus­tri­al Engi­neer­ing, Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing;
  • Charles A. Mims, Paul G. O’Brien and Thomas E. Wood – Depart­ment of Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing & Applied Chem­istry, Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, and Solar Fuels Research Clus­ter;
  • Amr S. Helmy – Edward S. Rogers Sr. Depart­ment of Elec­tri­cal & Com­put­er Engi­neer­ing, Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing.

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Geof­frey Ozin
Solar Fuels Research Clus­ter
Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
(011) 49 721 354 4601
SKYPE, Face­time – please email to arrange.

*For sched­ul­ing pur­pos­es, please note Pro­fes­sor Geof­frey Ozin’s where­abouts in the days ahead:

  • Ger­many from Aug. 25–31 on Cen­tral Euro­pean Sum­mer Time (6 hours ahead of North Amer­i­can East­ern Day­light Time).

Wei Sun
Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
(1) 416 946 7950