From climate killer to fuels and polymers

July 04, 2016

Researchers have discovered a catalyst that performs highly selective conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into ethylene - an important source material for the chemical industry. In the journal "Nature Communications", a team headed by Prof Dr Beatriz Roldan Cuenya from Ruhr-Universität Bochum describes how plasma-treated copper can be used for this purpose.

Catalysts traditionally used for the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into useful chemicals were not efficient enough. The reason: the materials do not have high selectivity; they produce a little ethylene and too many unwanted side products. This has now been changed.

More selectivity through plasma treatment

PhD student Hemma Mistry from the Institute for Experimental Physics IV in Bochum used copper films treated with oxygen or hydrogen plasmas as catalysts. Through these plasma treatments, she altered the properties of the copper surface, rendering it rougher or less rough, for example, and oxidizing the material. The researcher varied the plasma parameters systematically until she hit on the optimal surface properties.

Her best catalyst boasts a higher ethylene production rate than traditional copper catalysts. At the same time, it acts in a highly selective manner, which means that the amount of unwanted side products is considerable reduced. "It's a new record for this material," concludes Beatriz Roldan Cuenya.

Mechanism decoded

The researchers also identified the reason why this form of plasma treatment has been successful. Using synchrotron radiation, they analysed the copper film's chemical state during the catalysis of the reaction. Through these measurements, they detected the cause of the higher ethylene selectivity. The key component was positively charged copper ions at the catalyst surface.

It had been assumed that copper can only exist in its metallic form under reaction conditions. The researchers' discovery has now disproved this assumption, and their findings were confirmed by additional microscopic analysis. "The results open up new possibilities for designing catalysts on the nanoscale with specific activity and selectivity," says Beatriz Roldan Cuenya.
Cooperation partners

For the purpose of the study, the group led by Prof Dr Beatriz Roldan Cuenya from Bochum collaborated with the group headed by Prof Dr Peter Strasser from Technische Universität Berlin, the group headed by Prof Dr Judith C. Yang from University of Pittsburgh, and the group headed by Dr Eric A. Stach from Brookhaven National Laboratory. The team also utilized the facilities at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.


Financial backing for the study was provided by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (#03SF0523, CO2EKAT), the German Research Foundation under the umbrella of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV (EXC 1069), as well as the US National Science Foundation (NSF-Chemistry 1213182 and NSF-DMR 1207065) and the Office for Basic Energy Sciences at the US Department of Energy (DE-FG02-08ER15995).

Original publication

Hemma Mistry et al.: Highly selective plasma-activated copper catalysts for carbon dioxide reduction to ethylene, in: Nature Communications, 2016, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12123

Press contact

Prof Dr Beatriz Roldan Cuenya, Institute for Experimental Physics IV, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, phone: +49 234 32 23650, email:

Editor: Julia Weiler

Ruhr-University Bochum

Related Plasma Articles from Brightsurf:

Plasma treatments quickly kill coronavirus on surfaces
Researchers from UCLA believe using plasma could promise a significant breakthrough in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Fighting pandemics with plasma
Scientists have long known that ionized gases can kill pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and some fungi.

Topological waves may help in understanding plasma systems
A research team has predicted the presence of 'topologically protected' electromagnetic waves that propagate on the surface of plasmas, which may help in designing new plasma systems like fusion reactors.

Plasma electrons can be used to produce metallic films
Computers, mobile phones and all other electronic devices contain thousands of transistors, linked together by thin films of metal.

Plasma-driven biocatalysis
Compared with traditional chemical methods, enzyme catalysis has numerous advantages.

How bacteria protect themselves from plasma treatment
Considering the ever-growing percentage of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, interest in medical use of plasma is increasing.

A breakthrough in the study of laser/plasma interactions
Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and CEA Saclay have developed a particle-in-cell simulation tool that is enabling cutting-edge simulations of laser/plasma coupling mechanisms.

Researchers turn liquid metal into a plasma
For the first time, researchers at the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) have found a way to turn a liquid metal into a plasma and to observe the temperature where a liquid under high-density conditions crosses over to a plasma state.

How black holes power plasma jets
Cosmic robbery powers the jets streaming from a black hole, new simulations reveal.

Give it the plasma treatment: strong adhesion without adhesives
A Japanese research team at Osaka University used plasma treatment to make fluoropolymers and silicone resin adhere without any adhesives.

Read More: Plasma News and Plasma Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to