Awards Database

Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2013

Mu-Hyun “Mookie” Baik

Chemistry and Informatics, Indiana State University

Ryan Trovitch

Chemistry, Arizona State University

Targeting a New Product for Electrocatalytic CO2 Reduction: Formaldehyde

During WWII oil-poor Germany used the Fischer-Tropsch process, developed in 1925, to produce liquid fuel from coal – enough to keep 25 percent of its automobiles running. But it’s an energy-intensive process that requires extreme heat and high pressure to force a string of chemical reactions that convert carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) into liquid hydrocarbons, or burnable fuel. Now, Mu-Hyun “Mookie” Baik, associate professor of chemistry and informatics at Indiana University, and Ryan Trovitch, assistant professor of chemistry at Arizona State University, hope to come up with a method to generate carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide (CO2) and further reduce it with sunlight-generated protons and electrons. Such a process would allow the preparation of liquid fuels without requiring an input of H2, and would offer a sustainable alternative to less-favorable Fischer-Tropsch chemistry. Because CO will be produced by chemically reducing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), the researchers are also hoping that if they succeed, their work might eventually utilize CO2 streams that would otherwise be released into the earth’s increasingly CO2 - polluted atmosphere. At the very least, their success might offer vehicle owners the choice of a carbon-neutral fuel; that is, fuel that neither adds to nor detracts from the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Their plan is straightforward but seemingly improbable – develop a room-temperature, low-pressure, three-part electrocatalytic converter that not only generates CO from CO2 but also activates the CO molecules it produces so that they react with nearby hydride sources (H-), also contributed by the catalyst. This would ultimately allow the formal “hydrogenation” of CO, which is necessary to produce formaldehyde, a precursor to the burnable fuel methanol. To rapidly guide their independent experiments on the three parts of the catalyst, and then eventually to combine the results in the most effective manner – a major challenge in itself—the researchers will be employing advanced techniques known as quantum chemical molecular modeling. This process requires understanding how the electrons arrayed in various atoms come together to form molecules, and using high-speed supercomputers to predict the motions and interactions of multiple atoms and molecules. It is much more difficult than it sounds: As molecules and atoms are added to a group, the number of possible subatomic motions quickly escalates to infinity, making it nearly impossible to precisely predict the behavior of such combinations. Physicists and mathematicians call this sort of challenge the “many-body problem,” and it is the area of theoretical physics requiring the most intensive, computer-driven research.

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