A Catalyst for Sustainable Methanol

For quite some time, scientists have been promoting hydrogen as the energy source of the future, with applications in mobility and as a replacement of fossil fuels, e.g., for heating or for the chemical industry. Now it has found additional application in the green technology movement.

A new green catalyst converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol. Image Source: ETH Zürich / Mattias Frei

Scientists at ETH Zurich and the oil and gas company, Total, have developed a new catalyst that cleanly converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol. If the novel process offers realistic market potential, the technology could pave the way for the sustainable production of fuels and chemicals.

Methanol is regarded as a commodity or bulk chemical. It is possible to convert it into fuels and a wide variety of chemical products, including those that are currently produced using fossil fuel resources.

The core of the new approach is an indium oxide-based catalyst, which was developed by Professor Javier Pérez-Ramírez at ETH Zurich and his team. Just a few years ago, the team successfully demonstrated that indium oxide was capable of catalyzing the necessary chemical reaction. Even at the time, it was encouraging that doing so generated virtually only methanol and almost no by-products other than water. The catalyst also proved to be highly stable. However, indium oxide on its own is not sufficiently active, which has prevented it from being a commercially viable option.

The team of scientists now reports that they have succeeded in significantly boosting the catalyst’s activity without affecting selectivity or stability, achieved by treating the indium oxide with a small quantity of palladium.

“More specifically, we insert some single palladium atoms into the crystal lattice structure of the indium oxide, which anchor further palladium atoms to its surface, generating tiny clusters that are essential for the remarkable performance,” says team member Cecilia Mondelli. Professor Pérez-Ramírez explains that they used advanced analytical and theoretical methods. “Catalysis,” he says, “may now be considered nanotechnology.”

The necessary electricity to produce hydrogen comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, or hydro. In this manner, it can be used to make true sustainable methanol and thus, sustainable chemicals and fuels.

Compared to other methods that are currently being applied to produce green fuels, Pérez-Ramírez states that this technology has the added advantage that it is almost ready for the market.

ETH Zurich and Total have jointly filed a patent for the technology. Total now plans to scale up the approach and potentially implement it in a demonstration unit over the next few years.

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