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Scientists make game-changing discovery about 'the world's most important chemical' — here's what it could do for the industry

"A significant stride in decarbonizing the chemical sector."

"A significant stride in decarbonizing the chemical sector."

Photo Credit: University of Cincinnati

By using a new component in production, scientists at the University of Cincinnati have streamlined one of the most common processes in the chemical industry. Implemented commercially, this revelation holds promise in significantly reducing carbon in the atmosphere through greener means of production.

Professor Jingjie Wu and his team at UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science have discovered that using a modified copper catalyst enhances the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide to ethylene. The study was published in Nature Chemical Engineering.

Ethylene, "the world's most important chemical," is an ingredient used in plastic production. In 2022, the chemical industry generated 225 million metric tons of ethylene for use in products such as food packaging and containers, toys, chemicals like solvents and detergents, and much more.

While traditional methods of ethylene production use dirty energy sources as feedstock, engineers and scientists like Wu are furthering research on how carbon capture can be used instead to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"Ethylene is a pivotal platform chemical globally, but the conventional steam-cracking process for its production emits substantial carbon dioxide," Wu said. "By utilizing carbon dioxide as a feedstock rather than depending on fossil fuels, we can effectively recycle carbon dioxide."

According to a report by the Australian Academy of Science, carbon capture methods like this one and the reduction of carbon emissions are necessary in capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

After their discovery, Wu and his team's next steps are discerning how to improve the process to make it commercially viable and extend its impact. 

One complication they've found is that byproducts of the process decrease efficiency in ethylene production, hindering commercial production — for now.

"The overarching objective is to decarbonize chemical production by utilizing renewable electricity and sustainable feedstock," Wu said. "Electrifying the conversion of carbon dioxide to ethylene marks a significant stride in decarbonizing the chemical sector."

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