A new catalyst turns greenhouse gas into jet fuel

Materials like this could someday be used to curb airplanes’ climate footprint

Jet fuel made from atmospheric carbon-dioxide might someday reduce pollution from air travel.

William Hook/Unsplash

Airplanes pump a lot of carbon dioxide, or CO2, into Earth’s atmosphere. That waste, a greenhouse gas, contributes to global warming. But someday, CO2 instead could be sucked from the air and used to power those planes.

Air travel currently makes up 12 percent of all transit-related CO2 emissions. Using CO2 instead of oil to make jet fuel could reduce the air travel industry’s carbon footprint.

Catalysts are materials that speed up chemical reactions. An international team of scientists has now created a catalyst that can convert waste CO2 into jet fuel. They described their achievement December 22, 2020 in Nature Communications.

Scientists had tried to convert CO2 into fuel before. But those efforts relied on catalysts made of costly materials. The process also took many steps. The new catalyst is a powder made of cheap ingredients, such as iron. It converts CO2 into jet fuel in a single step.

The catalyst works by splitting molecules of CO2 into the carbon and oxygen atoms from which they’re made. The new process occurs in a reaction chamber filled with hydrogen gas. The catalyst helps the newly free carbon atoms link up with hydrogen atoms in the gas. The resulting hydrocarbon molecules can serve as a jet fuel. The leftover oxygen atoms join up with hydrogen atoms to form water.

Tiancun Xiao is a chemist at the University of Oxford in England. His team tested the catalyst on CO2 in a small reaction chamber. The chamber was set to 300° Celsius (572° Fahrenheit). It also was pressurized to about 10 times the air pressure at sea level. Over 20 hours, the catalyst converted more than one-third of the CO2 into new chemical products. About half of them were jet-fuel hydrocarbons. The rest were other chemicals. Some of those can be used to make plastics.

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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