A new carbon dioxide conversion tool

Scientists at Cornell University have reworked the 120-year-old Cottrell equation to understand the reactions carbon dioxide undergoes when subjected to electrochemistry, with the goal of converting the gas into useful products. Researchers believe that the classical equation can help electrochemists control reactions to create desirable products such as ethylene, ethane, or ethanol, effectively turning an environmental issue into a renewable resource.

Scientists from Cornell University have revisited a century-old electrochemical equation, the Cottrell equation, to help convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a functional product, and in managing greenhouse gases.

This equation, named after the chemist Frederick Gardner Cottrell who devised it in 1903, now serves as a valuable tool for modern researchers. By applying electrochemistry in a controlled laboratory environment, scientists can gain a clearer understanding of the diverse interactions that carbon dioxide can undergo.

The electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide offers an opportunity to convert the gas from an environmental liability into a feedstock for chemical products or as a means of storing renewable electricity in the form of chemical bonds, as nature does.

Their work has been published in the journal ACS catalyst.

said lead author Rileigh Casebolt DiDomenico, a chemical engineering doctoral student at Cornell University under the supervision of Professor Tobias Hanrath.

“If we have better control over reaction, then we can make whatever we want, when we want to do it,” DiDomenico said. “The Cottrell equation is the tool that helps us get there.”

The equation enables the researcher to define and control experimental parameters for taking carbon dioxide and converting it into useful carbon products such as ethylene, ethane, or ethanol.

Many researchers today use advanced computational methods to provide a detailed atomic picture of the processes on the catalyst surface, but these methods often involve several subtle assumptions, which complicates direct comparison with experiments, said senior author Tobias Hanrath.

“The beauty of this ancient equation is that there are very few assumptions,” Hanrath said. “If you put empirical data in, you get a better sense of the truth. It’s an old classic. That’s the part that I thought was beautiful.”

“Because it’s older,” DiDomenico said, “the Cottrell equation was a forgotten technique. It’s classic electrochemistry. Just bringing it back to the forefront of people’s minds was great. And I think this equation will help other electrochemists study their own systems.”

Reference: “Mechanistic insights into the formation of carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide products in the electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide – the role of chain transfer of charge and chemical reactions” by Reilly Caspolte de Domenico, Kelsey Levine, Lila Remanis, Hector de Abroena and Tobias Hanrath, March 27, 2023 and ACS catalyst.
DOI: 10.1021/acscatal.2c06043

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, a Cornell Energy Systems Institute-Corning Graduate Fellowship and the Cornell Engineering Learning Initiative.

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