NEW YORK (TIP): Here comes a potentially clean and low-cost way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol – a key ingredient in the production of plastics, adhesives and solvents and a promising fuel for the future. Scientists have identified a new nickel-gallium catalyst that converts hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methanol with fewer side-products than the conventional catalyst. “Methanol is processed in huge factories at very high pressures using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from natural gas,” said Felix Studt, a staff scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, US. We are looking for materials than can make methanol from clean sources under low-pressure conditions, while generating low amounts of carbon monoxide, he said.

“Eventually we would also like to make higher alcohols, such as ethanol and propanol, which, unlike methanol, can be directly added to gasoline today,” added co-author Jens Norskov, a professor of chemical engineering at the Stanford University. Once the team understood methanol synthesis at the molecular level, they began the hunt for a new catalyst capable of synthesising methanol at low pressures using only hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The most promising candidate turned out to be a little-known compound called nickel-gallium. The team turned to a research group at the Technical University of Denmark. The Danish team carried out the task of synthesising nickel and gallium into a solid catalyst. In lab tests, nickel-gallium produced more methanol than the conventional copper-zinc-aluminium catalyst and considerably less of the carbon monoxide byproduct.

“You want to make methanol, not carbon monoxide. You also want a catalyst that is stable and does not decompose. The lab tests showed that nickel-gallium is, in fact, a very stable solid,” said Ib Chorkendorff from the Technical University of Denmark. The ultimate goal is to develop a large-scale manufacturing process that is non-polluting and carbon neutral using clean hydrogen, the authors said in the study that appeared in the journal Nature Chemistry.

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