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Scientists create 'artificial leaf' that turns carbon dioxide into fuel

Scientists have created an ‘artificial leaf’ to fight climate change by inexpensively converting harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) into a useful alternative fuel. The new technology, outlined in a paper published in the journal Nature Energy, was inspired by the way plants use energy from sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food.

‘We call it an artificial leaf because it mimics real leaves and the process of photosynthesis,’ explains Yimin Wu, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who led the research. ‘A leaf produces glucose and oxygen. We produce methanol and oxygen.’

Making methanol from CO
2, the primary contributor to global warming, would both reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and provide a substitute for the fossil fuels that create them.

The key to the process is a cheap, optimised red powder called cuprous oxide. Engineered to have as many eight-sided particles as possible, the powder is created by a chemical reaction when four substances – glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide and sodium dodecyl sulfate – are added to water that has been heated to a particular temperature. The powder then serves as the catalyst, or trigger, for another chemical reaction when it is mixed with water into which CO
2 is blown and a beam of white light is directed with a solar simulator.

The reaction produces oxygen, as in photosynthesis, while also converting CO
2 in the water-powder solution into methanol. The methanol is collected as it evaporates when the solution is heated.

Next steps in the research include increasing the methanol yield and commercialising the patented process to convert CO
2 collected from major GHG sources such as power plants, vehicles and oil drilling.

‘I’m extremely excited about the potential of this discovery to change the game,’ says Wu. ‘Climate change is an urgent problem and we can help reduce CO
2 emissions while also creating an alternative fuel.’

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