Singapore: Scientists make breakthrough in conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuel

Updated On: Apr 20, 2009

Scientists in Singapore say they have found a way to turn planet-warming carbon dioxide into clean-burning methanol using a process that uses less energy than previous attempts.

The scientists at the state-backed Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology said on Thursday they used non-toxic organocatalysts to make ethanol, a biofuel that is also used as an industrial feedstock.

In a statement, the institute said the team, led by Yugen Zhang, used N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs), an organocatalyst in the chemical reaction with carbon dioxide.

NHCs are stable and the reaction between NHCs and carbon dioxide can take place under mild conditions in dry air, the statement said, adding only a small amount of the catalyst was needed.

The process also used hydrosilane, a combination of silica and hydrogen.

"Hydrosilane provides hydrogen, which bonds with carbon dioxide in a reduction reaction. This carbon dioxide reduction is efficiently catalyzed by NHCs even at room temperature," Zhang said in the statement.

The process can be done at room temperatures in the presence of oxygen, unlike previously discovered methods using heavy metal catalysts with toxic and unstable components, the scientists said. The new process also uses much less energy and takes less time than previous methods.

"Methanol can be easily obtained from the product of the carbon dioxide reaction," Zhang added.

Previous attempts to turn CO2 into more useful products have required more energy input and a much longer reaction time, the team said.

Just how to apply the process to the real-world challenge of capturing the billions of tons of carbon put into the atmosphere each year by coal-fired power plants, factories, vehicles and other sources remain to be seen.

Reuters, Singapore scientists say can turn CO2 into biofuel, 16 April 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSSP422524

Greentech media, Carbon Dioxide-to-Methanol Breakthrough , 16 April 2009, http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/carbon-dioxide-to-methanol-breakt...