Green Energy Gets A Colorful Twist

Typically attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the most prevalent gases produced by humans, may actually help create a new, cleaner fuel source when used in combination with bismuth.

A naturally occurring element that can be found in small pockets throughout the Earth’s crust, bismuth may also be obtained through the processes of refining and mining other metals (such as lead, copper, tin, silver, and gold). With a crystal-like metallic structure, this element has managed to avoid the public eye despite its beautiful, glittering geometric structure. It often also contains varieties of color ranging from silver and pink to gold. However, this metal is more than just pretty. In today’s world, bismuth is used in a plethora of products including: cosmetics, sprinkler systems, fire detection systems, and Pepto-Bismol.

Bismuth already displays a variety of strange characteristics, including its diamagnetic properties (its ability to resist magnetization and is therefore repelled by magnetic fields), low melting point, and the propensity to expand when frozen. Now, a newly discovered property of the element allows it to sustainably produce and provide fuel reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the process.

Members of the University of Delaware’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry have discovered that bismuth can be used as a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid fuels and other important industrial chemicals. The head of the team, Professor Rosenthal, refers to the conversion process they use as “catalytic plasticity.” This term references the metal’s ability to convert a compound into a number of others with a few adjustments.

“By applying an electrical current to a bismuth film placed in a bath of salty liquids that contains amidinium and imidazolium ions, he and his colleagues could “tune” the chemical reaction to transform CO2 to formic acid or to a liquid fuel such as gasoline. Formic acid is a precious chemical used in various industrial applications such as preserving livestock feed and human food, and producing artificial flavorings, rubber and leather, and perfumes. Conventionally, it has been necessary for chemists to develop a new catalyst to initiate every distinctive chemical reaction they analyzed, from steps a to b, from b to c, and so on, stated Rosenthal, which renders this process—the use of one catalyst that can be tuned or customized to efficiently initiate various types of reactions—specifically innovative reactions.”

Through a similar process, the team also found that bismuth is able to convert carbon dioxide into usable liquid fuels like gasoline. Rosenthal predicts that this technology may allow people to create these kinds of fuels by utilizing renewable electricity, generated from sunlight and wind. As a result, the demand for conventional fuel sources may decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced.

As a result of the findings from experiments conducted by the research team at the University of Delaware, it may be possible to use bismuth to produce clean liquid fuels, along with other important chemicals, in the future. This process is not ready for wide scale usage or industrial implementation, but it could, in time, bring about better atmospheric conditions and a new fuel option for consumers.

For more information about other developing alternative fuel options, please click here.


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