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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Green Chemistry Breakthrough: Researchers Create Ethylene from CO2

  • Associate Professor Jingjie Wu and his team have enhanced the electrochemical conversion of CO2 into ethylene, a crucial chemical in various industries, using a modified copper catalyst.
  • This breakthrough could shift ethylene production from fossil fuels to green energy sources, significantly reducing carbon emissions.
  • The collaboration with multiple universities and the focus on making the process commercially viable aim to decarbonize chemical production and promote sustainability in the industry.

Engineers at the University of Cincinnati created a more efficient way of converting carbon dioxide into valuable products while simultaneously addressing climate change.

The study paper has been published in the journal Nature Chemical Engineering.

In his chemical engineering lab in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Associate Professor Jingjie Wu and his team found that a modified copper catalyst improves the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into ethylene, the key ingredient in plastic and a myriad of other uses.

Ethylene has been called “the world’s most important chemical.” It is certainly among the most commonly produced chemicals, used in everything from textiles to antifreeze to vinyl.

The chemical industry generated 225 million metric tons of ethylene in 2022.

Wu explained that the process holds promise for one day producing ethylene through green energy instead of fossil fuels. It has the added benefit of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Wu said, “Ethylene is a pivotal platform chemical globally, but the conventional steam-cracking process for its production emits substantial carbon dioxide. By utilizing carbon dioxide as a feedstock rather than depending on fossil fuels, we can effectively recycle carbon dioxide.”

Wu’s students, including lead author and UC graduate Zhengyuan Li, collaborated with Rice University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University and Arizona State University. Li received a prestigious graduate student award last year from the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

RhCu catalyst images. d, TEM image of the RhCu catalyst. e, HAADF-STEM image of the RhCu catalyst. The blue circles highlight Rh atoms. f, STEM-EDS mapping of the RhCu catalyst, showing atomic dispersion of Rh sites on the Cu matrix. Image Credit: University of Cincinnati. For more images click the study paper link to the open access (At time of posting.) paper.

The electrocatalytic conversion of carbon dioxide produces two primary carbon products, ethylene and ethanol. The researchers found that using a modified copper catalyst produced more ethylene.

“Our research offers essential insights into the divergence between ethylene and ethanol during electrochemical CO2 reduction and proposes a viable approach to directing selectivity toward ethylene,” lead author Li noted.

“This leads to an impressive 50% increase in ethylene selectivity,” Wu added. “Ideally, the goal is to produce a single product rather than multiple ones.”

Li said the next step is refining the process to make it more commercially viable.

The conversion system loses efficiency as byproducts of the reaction such as potassium hydroxide begin forming on the copper catalyst.

“The electrode stability must be improved for commercial deployment. Our next focus is to enhance stability and extend its operation from 1,000 to 100,000 hours,” Li said.

Wu explained these new technologies will help make the chemical industry greener and more energy efficient. “The overarching objective is to decarbonize chemical production by utilizing renewable electricity and sustainable feedstock,” Wu said. “Electrifying the conversion of carbon dioxide to ethylene marks a significant stride in decarbonizing the chemical sector.”

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy where its Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office is leading efforts to reduce fossil fuels and carbon emissions in industry wherever possible.



This research group has its wits working. Knowing and understanding process technology well enough to get to a 100,000-hour working life is a great idea. Another bonus in research management is striving to a single product process. That would simplify the process greatly and cut the invested capital dramatically.

So far, the research is depending on renewable electrical power, at a low cost, collecting and getting the CO2 to the processor at low cost and making production sales into a market of really inexpensive ethylene.

Its going to take a lot of brain power to get this tech to economic market success.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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Leave a comment
  • Vernon Brechin on February 25 2024 said:
    This article could have been more clear that in order to create the ethylene and other byproducts from the CO2 reaction energy needs to be added to the product. In this case that addition is done via an electrolytic process.

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