The University of Toronto Engineering researchers have made a groundbreaking discovery by developing a new catalyst that efficiently converts captured carbon into valuable products, even in the presence of contaminants. This discovery marks a significant step towards more economically viable techniques for carbon capture and storage, which can be integrated into existing industrial processes. Professor David Sinton, the senior author of a paper published in Nature Energy, emphasizes the importance of finding cost-effective methods to capture and upgrade carbon in waste streams, especially in industries like steel and cement manufacturing that are harder to decarbonize.

Sinton and his team utilize electrolyzers to convert CO2 and electricity into products such as ethylene and ethanol, which can be utilized as fuels or chemical feedstocks. The conversion reaction occurs on the surface of a solid catalyst, with CO2 gas, electrons, and a water-based liquid electrolyte coming together. While copper is a common material for catalysts, other metals or organic compounds can enhance the system’s efficiency by speeding up the reaction and minimizing the generation of undesirable side products like hydrogen gas.

The majority of high-performing catalysts are designed to operate with pure CO2 feeds, making them less effective in environments where impurities are present. Substances like sulfur oxides can quickly poison the catalyst, reducing its efficiency within minutes. Although methods exist to remove impurities from CO2-rich exhaust gases before feeding them into the electrolyzer, these processes are time-consuming, energy-intensive, and costly. Even trace amounts of impurities like sulfur oxides can significantly impact catalyst performance, underscoring the need for more resilient catalyst designs.

Designing a Resilient Catalyst

To address the challenge of sulfur oxide poisoning, the research team made key modifications to a typical copper-based catalyst. They added a thin layer of Teflon to one side, altering the catalyst surface chemistry to hinder SO2 reactions. On the other side, a layer of Nafion, an electrically-conductive polymer, was introduced to create a barrier that prevents SO2 from reaching the catalyst surface. Testing the catalyst with a mix of CO2 and SO2, the team achieved a Faraday efficiency of 50% that was maintained for 150 hours, even with typical industrial waste stream concentrations of about 400 parts per million of SO2.

Implications for Carbon Capture Technologies

The development of a more resilient catalyst that can withstand sulfur oxide poisoning opens up possibilities for enhanced carbon capture and conversion processes. The approach taken by the research team is expected to be widely applicable, allowing other researchers to incorporate similar coatings into their high-performing catalyst designs to improve resistance to impurities. While sulfur oxides present a significant challenge, the research team is now exploring ways to address other chemical contaminants present in waste streams.

The advancements in catalyst design for carbon conversion hold promise for more efficient and cost-effective carbon capture and storage technologies. By developing catalysts that can withstand the presence of impurities like sulfur oxides, researchers are paving the way for a more sustainable future in industries that are challenging to decarbonize. The innovative approach taken by the University of Toronto Engineering team demonstrates the potential for catalyst design to play a crucial role in addressing environmental concerns and transitioning towards a low-carbon economy.


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