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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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New Catalyst Paves Way For Green Methane Production

  • The new system mimics the photosynthesis process, specifically the efficient energy transfer in purple bacteria.
  • With a 15% solar-to-fuel efficiency rate, this method surpasses natural photosynthesis and produces methane at an impressive rate.
  • The innovative and sustainable process utilizes cheap, Earth-abundant elements, potentially advancing the goal of carbon neutrality.

A City University of Hong Kong research team recently developed a stable artificial photocatalytic system that is more efficient than natural photosynthesis. The new system mimics a natural chloroplast to convert carbon dioxide in water into methane, a valuable fuel, very efficiently using light. This promising discovery could contribute to the goal of carbon neutrality.

Photosynthesis is the process by which chloroplasts in plants and some organisms use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to create food or energy. In past decades, many scientists have tried to develop artificial photosynthesis processes to turn carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral fuel.

Professor Ye Ruquan, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at CityU, one of the leaders of the joint study explained, “However, it is difficult to convert carbon dioxide in water because many photosensitizers or catalysts degrade in water. Although artificial photocatalytic cycles have been shown to operate with higher intrinsic efficiency, the low selectivity and stability in water for carbon dioxide reduction have hampered their practical applications.”

In the latest study published in Nature Catalysis, the joint-research team from CityU, The University of Hong Kong (HKU), Jiangsu University and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences overcame these difficulties by using a supramolecular assembly approach to create an artificial photosynthetic system. It mimics the structure of a purple bacteria’s light-harvesting chromatophores (i.e. cells that contain pigment), which are very efficient at transferring energy from the sun.

The core of the new artificial photosynthetic system is a highly stable artificial nanomicelle – a kind of polymer that can self-assemble in water, with both a water-loving (hydrophilic) and a water-fearing (hydrophobic) ends. The nanomicelle’s hydrophilic head functions as a photosensitizer to absorb sunlight, and its hydrophobic tail acts as an inducer for self-assembly.

When it is placed in water, the nanomicelles self-assemble due to intermolecular hydrogen bonding between the water molecules and the tails. Adding a cobalt catalyst results in photocatalytic hydrogen production and carbon dioxide reduction, resulting in the production of hydrogen and methane.

Using advanced imaging techniques and ultrafast spectroscopy, the team unveiled the atomic features of the innovative photosensitizer. They discovered that the special structure of the nanomicelle’s hydrophilic head, along with the hydrogen bonding between water molecules and the nanomicelle’s tail, make it a stable, water-compatible artificial photosensitizer, solving the conventional instability and water-incompatibility problem of artificial photosynthesis. The electrostatic interaction between the photosensitizer and the cobalt catalyst, and the strong light-harvesting antenna effect of the nanomicelle improved the photocatalytic process.In the experiment, the team found that the methane production rate was more than 13,000 μmol h−1 g−1, with a quantum yield of 5.6% over 24 hours. It also achieved a highly efficient solar-to-fuel efficiency rate of 15%, surpassing natural photosynthesis.

Most importantly, the new artificial photocatalytic system is economically viable and sustainable, as it doesn’t rely on expensive precious metals. “The hierarchical self-assembly of the system offers a promising bottom-up strategy to create a precisely controlled, high-performance artificial photocatalytic system based on cheap, Earth-abundant elements, like zinc and cobalt porphyrin complexes,” said Professor Ye.

Professor Ye also commented he believes the latest discovery will benefit and inspire the rational design of future photocatalytic systems for carbon dioxide conversion and reduction using solar energy, contributing to the goal of carbon neutrality.

The study was supported by various funding sources, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Guangdong Basic and Applied Basic Research Fund, the Shenzhen Science and Technology Program, and the Hong Kong Research Grant Council.

***

The artificial leaf of producing fuel from the CO2 in the atmosphere has gained a lot of ground over the years. One does suspect that the technology might be the solution to the ever increasing costs of fossil fuels. It does neatly offer human civilization a route to participate in the planet’s carbon cycle without a vast change in the atmosphere or a whole new infrastructure.

One could “net meter” methane as well as electrons. And the flow back to a centrally run storage system, many of which are already in use, would not be a huge capital outlay. And certainly not one on an individual basis, rather the concentration of production would enhance the value of concentrated capital.

But politics and extremism are in the way. “Decarbonizing” and other such schemes soak up attention and badly dilute process solution information that would greatly benefit the planet’s ecosystems as well as the human condition.

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This technology looks pretty close. We’ll be watching for this one perhaps getting to market.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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