Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering took a major step toward eliminating harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Their research could provide a way to dramatically reduce levels of CO2a major contributor to climate change that’s produced by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gasreleased into the atmosphere. It would also provide a cleaner fuel option in methanol.

Karl Johnson, a professor in the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering, and Jingyun Ye, a postdoctoral associate, recently published an article in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Catalysis Science & Technology that outlines the large-scale capture and conversion of atmospheric CO2 into liquid methanol fuel. Titled “Catalytic Hydrogenation of CO2 to Methanol in a Lewis Pair Functionalized MOF,” the article expands Johnson’s previous work on the subject.

Johnson served as the principal investigator, while Ye acted as the lead author.

Similar breakthroughs have been made in the areaearlier this year, researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were the first to directly convert CO2 to liquid methanol. Johnson says their research, which was supported by a grant from the US Department of Energy, improved upon the USC work, as well as decades of CO2-methanol conversion studies.

“Our advance over the USC approach is that we have developed a material that can potentially combine the capture of CO2say, from a power plantwith the conversion step,” says Johnson. “The USC approach still requires some other step to capture the CO2 in the first place.”

Johnson and Ye relied on computational resources at Pitt’s Center for Simulation and Modeling to design a catalyst capable of producing methanol from CO2 and hydrogen by using metal organic frameworks (MOFs). Adding the MOFs means that the process would require less energy and fewer steps to convert CO2 into methanol.

“Ideally, using this and similar technologies would allow us to balance the carbon cycle so that there would not be a net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere,” says Johnson. “This requires generating hydrogen, which would still have to come from a renewable energy source, such as solar, or from a zero-carbon source, such as nuclear power.”

The technology would offer a sustainable, cost-effective method of converting CO2 into methanol, which is considered a viable, environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Methanol can work in existing engines and fuel cells, and can be easily transported and stored.

“A methanol-based economy would potentially use cars that run on methanol, which would reduce or eliminate the need for gasoline,” says Johnson. “Methanol could also replace other types of fuel and could be used as a feed-stock for other products, much like petroleum is used today to make valuable products.”

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.