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Two Yale Chemistry Researchers Open New Electron Highway

Making methanol got a lot simpler, now that chemists at Yale have opened up a new electron highway.

The invention, published online November 27 in the journal Nature, finds a novel solution for two chemical tasks: producing methanol—a volatile, liquid fuel that’s prized by trade—and removing carbon dioxide from the environment. Hailiang Wang, a professor of chemistry at Yale and an associate of the Energy Sciences Institute at Yale’s West Campus, led the study.

Methanol is used in numerous products, along with antifreeze, paint thinners, and glass cleaners. It is usually used to produce biodiesel gasoline, plastics, plywood, and permanent-press clothing.

Yale researchers created a catalyst that turns carbon dioxide and water into methanol utilizing electricity. It is a type of enzyme called a heterogeneous molecular electrocatalyst—”heterogeneous” as a result of it is a strong catalyst material working in a liquid electrolyte, and “molecular” because the active site of the catalyst is a molecular structure.

He and his team attached individual molecules of cobalt phthalocyanine onto the surface of carbon nanotubes, nanometer-sized tubes of rolled-up graphene layers. The nanotubes act as a highway for electrons, creating a speedy and continuous delivery of electrons to the catalytic sites for changing carbon dioxide to methanol. It’s a six-electron reduction course, the researchers mentioned, which means that six electrons are inserted into one carbon dioxide molecule.

Before this research, a more restricted supply of electrons—a two-electron reduction course—meant molecular catalysts had been capable of turning carbon dioxide into products equivalent to carbon monoxide.

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