A new way to make valuable chemicals

August 26, 2019

In an effort to develop sustainable solutions to humanity's energy needs, many scientists are studying carbon capture and utilization -- the practice of using excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or from point sources, instead of fossil fuels, to synthesize chemicals used to make everyday products, from plastics to fuels to pharmaceuticals.

Feng Jiao, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, is a leader in the field of carbon capture and utilization. Now, he and his colleagues have made a new discovery that could further advance carbon capture and utilization and extend its promise to new industries.

In the journal Nature Chemistry, Jiao and collaborators from the California Institute of Technology, Nanjing University (China), and Soochow University (China) describe how they formed carbon-nitrogen bonds in an electrochemical carbon monoxide reduction reaction, which led to the production of high-value chemicals called amides. These substances are useful in a variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals.

The team is the first to do this. "Now, starting with carbon dioxide as a carbon source, we can expand to a variety of products," said Jiao, the associate director for UD's Center for Catalytic Science and Technology (CCST).

Ingenuity that began at UD

The science behind these findings is electrochemistry, which utilizes electricity to produce chemical change. In previous research efforts, Jiao developed a special silver catalyst, which converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. Next, he wanted to further upgrade carbon monoxide into multi-carbon products useful in the production of fuels, pharmaceuticals and more.

"In the field of electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion, we were stuck with only four major products we can make using this technology: ethylene, ethanol, propanol, and, as we reported just a couple months ago in Nature Catalysis, acetate," said Jiao.

Nitrogen is the secret ingredient to unlock the potential of the system. The team used an electrochemical flow reactor that is typically fed with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, but this time they put in both carbon monoxide and ammonia, a compound that contains nitrogen. The nitrogen source interacts with the copper catalyst at the electrode-electrolyte interface, leading to the formation of carbon-nitrogen (CN) bonds. This process allowed the team to synthesize chemicals that had never before been made in this way, including amides, which can be used in pharmaceutical synthesis. Many pharmaceutical compounds contain nitrogen, and "this actually provides a unique way to build large molecules which contains nitrogen from simple carbon and nitrogen species," said Jiao.

At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, Jiao shared some of his preliminary findings with William A. Goddard III, principal investigator at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at Caltech. Goddard, a world-leading expert who uses Quantum Mechanics to determine reaction mechanism and rates of such electrocatalytic processes, was very excited about this unexpected discovery and immediately set his team. Tao Cheng in the Goddard lab found that the new carbon-nitrogen bond coupling was an off-shoot of the mechanism that had been determined for the production of ethylene and ethanol, suggesting that Jiao might be able couple bonds other than CN.

"Through a close collaboration with Prof. Goddard, we learned quite a lot in terms of how this carbon-nitrogen bond formed on the surface of the catalyst," said Jiao. "This gave us important insights on how we can design even better catalysts to facilitate some of these kinds of chemical reactions."

The implications of this work could be far-ranging.

"This has the significant impact down the road, I think, to partially address carbon dioxide emission issues," said Jiao. "Now we can actually utilize it as the carbon feedstock to produce high-value chemicals."

University of Delaware

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com 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 Amazon.com.