academics & research

Carbon recycling could increase energy efficiency



Research on new types of chemical reactions could create more fuel-efficient cars.

Chemistry Professor Steven Tait’s work on reactions between metals and carbon dioxide could lead to cost-effective technology that reduces emissions from cars.

“We’re trying to create a surface that will bind carbon dioxide and start to do these reactions,” Tait said.

By recycling carbon dioxide molecules into more reactions, the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere remains the same.

To reach this goal, Tait said his lab needed to understand how carbon dioxide reacts on the surfaces of metallorganic complexes or molecules with metals and carbon atoms.

“We want to see what kind of structures form on the surface,” said Christopher Tempas, a graduate student in Tait’s lab. “But we really want to know what the chemistry of those metal atoms is going to be.”

Chemistry professor Kenneth Caulton synthesizes the molecules while Tait’s lab analyzes them.

Metal atoms react with oxygen to form oxides, but how they react with carbon dioxide isn’t clear, as the bond between a carbon atom and oxygen atoms is difficult to break, Tait said.

The lab uses a scanning tunnel microscopy to create an image of the surface at the molecular or atomic level, Tait said.

“The surface kind of acts as a place for the molecules and metals to interact in a two-dimensional plane,” Tempas said.

To understand the chemistry of the molecules, the scientists then perform x-ray spectroscopy, a method that shines x-rays on the electrons of the atoms.

From the way those x-rays interact and produce photoelectrons, they can identify features of the molecules.

Some metals, like vanadium, have chemical properties similar to iron, so this research could be applied to iron, an abundant metal, to create easy-to-manufacture technology, Tait said.

Though the project is still in its early stages, Tait said future scientists and engineers can use this fundamental research to make better devices that use fossil fuels.

Reducing carbon dioxide is a goal that many people from around the world are working on, Tait said.

“We’re trying to do something you couldn’t do alone,” Tait said.

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