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Iron catalyst converts CO₂ to jet fuel

Inexpensive material and procedure turn troublesome greenhouse gas into valuable product

by Mitch Jacoby
January 8, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 2


A micrograph showing an iron-based catalyst and a vial of jet fuel made by using the catalyst.
Credit: Benzhen Yao/University of Oxford
This low-cost iron-based catalyst (micrograph) was used to convert carbon dioxide to jet fuel (vial).

Peter P. Edwards predicts that future generations will look back at the way today’s scientists grappled with greenhouse gas problems and ask incredulously, “Bury CO2 in the ground? Was that the best you could come up with?” His group at the University of Oxford thinks that converting the troublemaker gas to valuable compounds is a better way to go. To that end, Edwards, Benzhen Yao, Tiancun Xiao, and coworkers have come up with an inexpensive iron catalyst that converts carbon dioxide to jet fuel, a mixture of hydrocarbons in the C8–C16 range (Nat. Commun. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20214-z). The team prepared a number of catalysts using a one-pot aqueous method in which they mixed iron nitrate and other starting materials with citric acid or other cation-complexing agents. Then they burned the resulting pastes in air, forming nanostructured catalysts, and used them to hydrogenate CO2 to make jet fuel. Tests comparing the effects of adding various transition metals and alkali metals showed that doping the Fe-based compound with manganese and potassium improved its catalytic performance. Results show that under mild conditions, the unoptimized Fe-Mn-K catalyst converts roughly 40% of CO2, producing C8–C16 hydrocarbons with nearly 50% selectivity and a mixture of light olefins, which are also industrially valuable.


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