Carbon Capture

21: The artificial leaf


Even if we immediately stopped putting carbon into our atmosphere, the existing carbon will continue to contribute to climate changes for decades.


An artificial leaf that bio-mimics the carbon-scrubbing abilities of the real thing.

Researchers led by Yimin A.Wu at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Illinois and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology in Ontario, Canada, collaborating with California State University (Northridge), and the City University of Hong Kong, have been developing an artificial leaf which bio-mimics the carbon-scrubbing abilities of the real thing.

But rather than turning atmospheric CO2 into a source of fuel for itself, the artificial leaf converts it into a useful alternative fuel.

Making methanol from carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global warming, would both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a substitute for the fossil fuels that create them.

The key to the process is a cheap, optimized red powder called cuprous oxide (Cu2O).

Engineered to have as many eight-sided particles as possible, the powder is created by a chemical reaction when four substances – glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide and sodium dodecyl sulfate – are added to water that has been heated to a particular temperature.

It is mixed with water, carbon dioxide is blown into the solution, a solar simulator directs a beam of white light at it and the Cu2O acts as the catalyst, or trigger, for another chemical reaction.

This reaction produces oxygen, as in photosynthesis, while also converting the carbon dioxide in the water-powder solution into methanol, which is collected from evaporation.

Next steps in the research include increasing the methanol yield and commercializing the patented process to convert carbon dioxide collected from major greenhouse gas sources such as power plants, vehicles and oil drilling.

Yimin A Wu et al., “Facet-dependent active sites of a single Cu2O particle photocatalyst for CO2 reduction to methanol” Nature Energy Volume 4, pages957–968 (2019).

University of Waterloo News: Scientists create ‘artificial leaf’ that turns carbon dioxide into fuel

Discover solution 22: recycling asbestos into ceramics

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