The magazine for Western Washington University

Turning pollution into fuel

Can we make cheap methonol from greenhouse gases?

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As the Earth’s temperature continues to creep upward – the last decade was the hottest 10-year span in history according to a report recently issued by NASA – Western Washington University’s John Gilbertson is researching methods that could put a significant dent in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.

ilbertson, an assistant professor of Chemistry at WWU, is researching methods to take carbon dioxide and combine it with hydrogen to make liquid methanol, a useful fuel and feedstock for making other chemicals. More specifically, Gilbertson and his team of students are investigating how to use nanoparticle catalysts to break the bonds of both the carbon dioxide and hydrogen molecules, allowing them to be recombined to form liquid methanol.

“Similar technology is currently online in Japan, but the trick here is to build the most efficient catalyst possible,” Gilbertson says. “If the catalyst isn’t extremely efficient, it takes more energy to do the process than you save in the long run.”

Gilbertson says many different technologies are needed to put a dent in the warming of the Earth.

“Estimates are that to make a dent in the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels, we’ll need to remove about a gigaton – a billion tons of it – each year,” he says. “So employing cheap, easy-to-use methods will be crucial.”