From Paris to Glasgow | Natural catalysis

Catalysis of CO2 conversion is a research topic with the potential to contribute to a net zero future. This issue of Focus contains a collection of content that is dedicated to the further development of basic research and the practical implementation of this technology in order to achieve the climate goals.

Five years ago the Paris Agreement – the international treaty that limits the maximum allowable increase in global average temperature to 2 ° C (preferably 1.5 ° C) below pre-industrial levels – came into force1. It was designed in a suburb of Paris at the end of 2015 during the COP21 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) within two weeks. This has been hailed as a landmark agreement that went beyond the previous Kyoto Protocol in setting a specific temperature limit. The individual countries involved in the agreement must present their plans for reducing CO2 emissions every five years, with the stipulation that the ambitions must be increased in each iteration.

“The individual countries involved in the agreement must submit their plans for CO2 reduction every five years, with the stipulation that the ambitions must be increased in each iteration.”

As we reach the five year anniversary of the agreement and the first of that global inventory, we must acknowledge the bumpy road we’ve come. The initiative suffered a major setback in late 2019 when the United States, one of the world’s largest polluting countries2, announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement (although it did so for a period of months before re-accession). During the same period, the world’s attention was diverted by the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial hopes that the resulting changes in behavior would lead to a reduction in emissions turned out to be short-lived3. In the run-up to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, it can be difficult not to be discouraged by the headlines saying that many of the 192 parties are not setting goals with the ambition needed to meet the climate goals4,5.

While international politics can be notoriously slow, we need to look for successes and opportunities in areas where we can make a concrete contribution. The community of scientists whose dream is to reinvent CO2 from waste pollutants into a chemical resource is working flat out. In this focus issue of Nature Catalysis we present a collection of content that is dedicated to the conversion of CO2 into fuels and base chemicals through catalytic processes. In particular, the areas of electrocatalytic CO2 reduction and heterogeneous CO2 hydrogenation have made enormous strides in the last ten years, but major challenges remain.

In keeping with the aims of our magazine, the collection contains content that addresses both the basic and applied faces of this community. In two Q&A articles, we talk to the founders of two aspiring start-ups for CO2 conversion. Staff Sheehan of New York-based Air Company takes us on the scale-up journey of their CO2-to-alcohol hydrogenation technology that led to the first commercially available CO2-derived vodka. Across the Pond, in Bordeaux, will give David Wakerley and Sarah Lamaison, whose company Dioxycle develops CO2 electrolysers for industry, insights into the lived experience of a young green tech start-up.

The practical considerations for a practicable CO2 catalytic process are not only the concern of industrial companies, but must also guide and inform basic research. Two important and often overlooked aspects for the efficiency of CO2 electrolysis in practice are the CO2 supply to the system and the purity of the products formed. In Perspective articles, Haotian Wang and coworkers assess the need for highly concentrated and pure products with no downstream purification to achieve a competitive cost scenario, while discussing recent advances in porous solid electrolyte reactor design to achieve this goal. Chengxiang Xiang, David Vermaas, Harry Atwater, and colleagues then discuss the integration of CO2 capture and conversion technology by devising various coupling configurations and weighing their relative merits.

In another Perspective article, Geoffrey Ozin and colleagues analyze the use of CO2-derived methanol as a means of storing intermittent solar energy. The presented way involves the intermediate formation of CO-rich synthesis gas from CO2 and renewable (solar) H2 via the reverse water-gas-shift reaction. The level of the CO2 tax and the price for renewable H2 have proven to be decisive for the short and long-term profitability of the system.

One of the intrinsic complications of CO2 reduction is the rich chemistry of carbon and the resulting large number of potential products, even if only C1 products (CO, CH4, CH3OH, CH2O, HCOOH) are considered. With the ability of the CC clutch and C2 + products, the possibilities are almost unlimited. The synthesis of catalysts that have a high selectivity for a desired product is very challenging and there is clearly a need for a rational design. Jenny Yang and Hannah Shafaat discuss the fundamental factors that determine selectivity in CO2 reduction in a Perspective article in which they take inspiration from biological systems that have long been able to activate CO2 effectively.

Returning to the policy that provides the underlying framework for scientific progress, Sarah Marie Jordaan and colleagues comment on how energy policy must work with R&D to drive the implementation of carbon catalysis to achieve the Paris goals.

At the time of writing, world leaders are making their way to COP26 in Glasgow and we will soon see the outcome of their discussions. We sincerely hope that this conference will act as a catalyst for positive change and bring the global emissions trend back on a more sustainable path. But whatever happens among politicians, we (as scientists) must continue to do our part, increase our ambition and work together across borders and disciplines6 to develop practical solutions to the CO2 problem.

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From Paris to Glasgow. Nat. Catal 4, 913-914 (2021).

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