Could a New Material Be the Latest Weapon Against Greenhouse Gases?

One of my favorite things about the weekend is that I have time to be outside. There is a great park close to our house where you can play table tennis, run on the loop on the perimeter of the park, play basketball or ultra-large chess, or stretch out on the lush green lawn.

I call this "The Loneliest Kite." ūüĎ©‚Äćūüé®

A post shared by Courtney R. Thomas, Ph.D. (@crthomasphd) on

The reality of global climate change is that we are (and have been) experiencing more extreme weather patterns. Winters are colder with more blizzard-like storms than before. Summers are warmer, with increased ocean temperatures and more active Atlantic hurricane seasons. Part of the problem with climate change is that, even if we have these drastic weather patterns, they are mostly fleeting moments. We tend to forget them because they don’t impact our lives constantly. It’s difficult to put them into the context of our whole lives, and our future.

// Why does it matter that we produce carbon dioxide?

Plants do a great job at cleaning up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. We exhale CO2, we produce CO2 in many industrial processes, and plants convert the carbon dioxide back into oxygen (and into sugar that they can use for food) by photosynthesis.  The problem is that, since the Industrial Revolution, we are producing carbon dioxide at a rate that is faster than what plants can photosynthesize. This means that it accumulates in our atmosphere, where it contributes to the greenhouse gas effect.

// What are scientists doing to help curb the effects of global climate change?

One area of scientific research is finding ways either to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, or to convert it into something else.

// The research discovery: Systematic variation of the bandgap in titanium based isoreticular metal-organic frameworks for photocatalytic reduction of CO2 under blue light

In this publication, recently published from the laboratory of Dr. Fernando Uribe-Romo at the University of Central Florida, researchers developed a material that can transform CO2 into a different form of carbon called solar fuel.These materials are like tiny sponges that allow gas to enter inside the pores. Once inside the tiny pores of the material, the CO2 can undergo a chemical reaction to change it into solar fuel.

The process of converting CO2 to solar fuel is has been done before, but normally it requires a lot of energy. If researchers want to use sunlight to drive this process, normally they need high-energy UV rays. While the sun does produce this type of radiation, UV rays only make up a very small percentage (around 3-5% of the solar spectrum) of what the sun produces. In this study, researchers were able to use visible light (in the form of a blue LED), which makes up a much larger proportion of the solar spectrum than UV light, to convert CO2 into solar fuel.

The solar spectrum is a representation of how much UV, visible, and infrared radiation make up the energy/light from the sun. The yellow and red area under the gray line represent the amount of each type of radiation. UV light makes up 3-5% of the sun’s energy, visible light makes up 42-43%, and infrared radiation makes up 52-55%. Image credit: WikiCommons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

// Why is this important?

Scientists are trying to develop materials that are more and more efficient at converting the sun’s energy into usable energy. To do that, it means that we need better ways to harness visible and infrared (IR) radiation, since these make up more than 90% of the sun’s rays.

This study shows that researchers are able to use visible light to transform¬†CO2¬†into solar fuel. It’s not perfect — it’s still not as efficient as a plant’s photosynthesis, and it does not use any of the infrared radiation that makes up more than 50% of the sun’s solar spectrum, but it’s a start. How might it be used in the future? The researchers suggest that one use could be in industry where a lot of¬†CO2¬†is produced. Perhaps factories could be equipped with these¬†CO2-conversion materials so that their¬†CO2¬†production is not being released into (and trapped by) the atmosphere.

Since global climate change in the direction of warming has taken a long time to happen, it means that change in the opposite direction will likely take a long time as well — generations, perhaps. The advances that scientists are making today are solutions that may one day be employed to improve the effects of carbon dioxide accumulating on our atmosphere. They may take years or decades to optimize and to be to take¬†outside of the research lab and into the real world, but researchers are putting a lot of thought into how we can use the resources we have now to improve lives (and the life of our planet) in the future.¬†When I think about the world that I want to leave for my children, my grandchildren, their grandchildren, I think about the park by my house. I want them to enjoy riding their bikes, stretching out their toes in the green grass, and trying to pick out pictures in the clouds.

 

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