Jie Zeng, a chemist at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, tells Nature about his efforts to capture the carbon dioxide produced by heavy manufacturing and use it productively in batteries.
What is the current stage of your research?
I study ways to convert the carbon dioxide released by cement, steel and petrochemical plants into liquid fuels and chemicals using electrical energy.
My team at USTC has tested out several generations of a technology that combines a catalyst and an electrochemical device to make formic acid — a simple, naturally occurring acid — from CO2 and water. That acid could then be used as a fuel source in batteries.
One of the historical disadvantages of the process of synthesizing formic acid using CO2 is that the acid needs to be separated and purified from an electrolyte solution. This accounts for more than 70% of the total cost of production.
In 2021, we developed a copper-alloy-based catalyst and an electrochemical device that uses a solid-state electrolyte. These combined enabled us to produce a pure formic acid solution that could immediately be used without the need for separation and purification.
How did you start this research?
I grew up in a rural area of Shangcheng county in Henan province, China. My father wasn’t highly educated, but regularly invented tools that would make my family’s lives easier. For example, he made tongs from iron wires that conducted less heat than a pair made from sturdier metal, so I didn’t burn my hands when cooking. I like to think he planted the seeds of innovation in my mind.
I did a PhD in condensed-matter physics at USTC and then moved to the United States for a postdoctoral position at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, from 2008 to 2011. In 2012, I returned to USTC to conduct my own independent research. I decided to focus on ways to use chemical catalytic processes to stop CO2 from being an environmental burden, and transform it into its own resource, rather than leaving it as a waste product.
A decade ago, the academic community didn’t think CO2 conversion was worth pursuing because of the high cost of the process. The idea was even more unpopular in the industrial world, because companies thought it wasn’t profitable. But since 2012, catalysts have improved and renewable power has reduced in cost, which has pushed opportunities in the field forward.
What are the next steps for your research?
We will focus on scaling up our technology to produce more formic acid so that it can be used commercially on an industrial scale, as soon as possible. We want to work with large carbon-emitting companies, such as cement plants and thermal power plants. Organizations from all over the world have reached out to us — both big carbon emitters actively looking for solutions and following the latest technological advances, as well as companies interested in purchasing our fuels and chemicals.
This year we reached a cooperation agreement with Sinopec, a large oil and petrochemical products supplier based in Beijing. The company is interested in using our technology to manufacture more of a set of chemicals called α-olefins. They can be made through CO2 conversion, and α-olefins are commonly used to make industrial oils and lubricants.
How does USTC support research into carbon-neutral technologies?
In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping set out a goal for the country to hit peak emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. This has produced opportunities for domestic researchers who are working in the field of CO2 conversion.
For example, in January 2022, USTC established its own Institute for Carbon Neutralization, which will provide financial support for the development of carbon recycling technology. Along with USTC, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology all also have projects that focus on carbon reduction. These projects promote multidisciplinary research in production methods, the way industry is structured and how energy is generated, all for the development of a greener economy and society.
Our team’s projects are mainly funded by the National Natural Science Foundation, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and some businesses. We receive around 10 million to 20 million yuan (US$1.57 million to $3.14 million) per year. It’s fair to say that since President Xi’s announcement, a lot more funding has arrived.
Over the years, I have mentored many young scholars who have also joined the field of CO2 conversion, which is probably my proudest achievement. Many of the greatest scientific developments require the relentless efforts of several generations of researchers. I’m happy to know that one day, when I become too old to work, my students will carry on the research.