A paper recently published in Nature Energy based on pioneering research done at Illinois Institute of Technology reveals a promising breakthrough in green energy: an electrolyser device capable of converting carbon dioxide into propane in a manner that is both scalable and economically viable.

As the United States races towards its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, innovative methods to reduce the significant carbon dioxide emissions from electric power and industrial sectors are critical. Mohammad Asadi, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Illinois Tech, spearheaded this groundbreaking research.

"Making renewable chemical manufacturing is really important," said Asadi. "It's the best way to close the carbon cycle without losing the chemicals we currently use daily."

Unique catalytic system

What sets Asadi's electrolyser apart is its unique catalytic system. It uses inexpensive, readily available materials to produce tri-carbon molecules – fundamental building blocks for fuels like propane, which is used for purposes ranging from home heating to aviation.

To ensure a deep understanding of the catalyst's operations, the team employed a combination of experimental and computational methods. This rigorous approach illuminated the crucial elements influencing the catalyst's reaction activity, selectivity, and stability.

A distinctive feature of this technology, lending to its commercial viability, is the implementation of a flow electrolyser. This design permits continuous propane production, sidestepping the pitfalls of the more conventional batch processing methods. 

"Designing and engineering this laboratory-scale flow electrolyser prototype has demonstrated Illinois Tech's commitment to creating innovative technologies. Optimising and scaling up this prototype will be an important step towards producing a sustainable, economically viable, and energy-efficient carbon capture and utilisation process," said Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program director Jack Lewnard.

This innovation is not Asadi's first venture into sustainable energy. He previously adapted a version of this catalyst to produce ethanol by harnessing carbon dioxide from industrial waste gas. Recognising the potential of the green propane technology, Asadi has collaborated with global propane distributor SHV Energy to further scale and disseminate the system.

"This is an exciting development which opens up a new e-fuel pathway to on-purpose propane production for the benefit of global users of this essential fuel," said Keith Simons, head of research and development for sustainable fuels at SHV Energy.