“We’re working to push the boundaries of this idea,” Rosenthal said.
“Our new findings are important from a technological standpoint—we think
this platform will allow renewable energy sources such as solar and
wind to drive the direct production of liquid fuels. But more
importantly, we believe this concept of ‘catalytic plasticity’ signals a
potential paradigm shift, a new way to think about renewable energy
conversion, fuel production and catalysis, in general.”
Rosenthal and his team previously showed that bismuth films can be
used in conjunction with certain liquid salts as inexpensive catalysts
for converting carbon dioxide and renewable energy to gaseous fuels such
as carbon monoxide.
In this study, they found they could use the same materials in the
presence of different salts to convert carbon dioxide directly to liquid
“I’ve been fascinated by the field of catalysis for a long time,”
Rosenthal said. “Thinking about how you can take something cheap and
plentiful and convert it into something much more useful and valuable
without having to dump a lot of extra energy into it has always captured
my imagination. There are philosophical parallels between catalysis and
the goals of the ancient alchemists. Alchemy is a loaded word, but in
some ways, what we are studying is like modern alchemy—efficiently
transforming carbon dioxide to more valuable fuels and chemicals is akin
to trying to convert lead to gold.”
What impact could Rosenthal’s technology have on current carbon dioxide levels?
“It’s hard to predict the direct impact on those levels,” he said.
“This technology would allow us to make liquid fuels using renewable
electricity from sunlight and wind. This, in turn, would decrease our
need for conventional petroleum resources, resulting in fewer carbon
This past April, Earth’s atmosphere attained its highest sustained
levels of carbon dioxide since humans have been monitoring it—exceeding
410 parts per million for the entire month—according to measurements
made at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory.
Rosenthal has been working on the challenge for nearly eight years and continues marching on.
“Finding chemistries to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric levels is important to me,” he said.
The research team also included postdoctoral fellow Abderrahman
Atifi; John L. DiMeglio, who received his doctorate from UD and is now a
postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan; and David W. Boyce,
who is now a research consultant.
The work was supported by Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and
Transport (FIRST), an Energy Frontier Research Center located at the
U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Camille and
Henry Dreyfus postdoctoral fellowship in environmental chemistry to
Atifi, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Article by Tracey Bryant; photos by Evan Krape