From fuels, to foam mattresses, to high-performance carbon fibers, scientists are getting better all the time at capturing harmful CO2 and turning it into useful products. Researchers at Rutgers University have made an exciting breakthrough in this area, describing a new method of artificial photosynthesis that can convert carbon dioxide into the building blocks for plastics and other materials, and do so with greater efficiency and much more cheaply than ever before.
The ability of natural plants to take just a small amount of energy from the Sun to convert carbon dioxide into fuels, in their case carbohydrates and fats for self-sustenance, has inspired countless lines of clean-energy-oriented research. Recreating this process of photosynthesis in manmade devices is seen as a holy grail of sorts, and we have seen plenty of promising experimental devices that use photosynthesis to produce fuels we humans can use, such as methanol, methane and hydrogen.
But there is a ways to go before these technologies become commercially feasible, with their efficiency and costs closely tied to the catalyst materials used to kick off the chemical reactions. And this is where the Rutgers researchers are claiming to have taken a significant step forward, unearthing a set of catalyst materials that are widely abundant (and therefore cheap), and marry the low-energy requirements of natural photosynthesis with the durability needed to withstand harsh chemical reactions.