Cooling towers at the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Beaver County. Public domain image/Wikimedia Commons.
Due to global emissions, a recent measurement by NASA found that levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide have reached a historic high.

The good news? Experts in Pittsburgh are pursuing a unique way to battle the problem: What if we could grab some of that damaging CO2 out of the air and convert it into something useful?

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have been experimenting with using a combination of copper nanoparticles and zirconium as a catalyst to convert CO2 into methane or methanol.

Efforts are already underway to capture some of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel power plants and store it underground — a process called carbon capture and sequestration. Pitt has now released a study showing the effectiveness of this new conversion process, which would complement carbon capture.

“If you really want to make a dent in the overall balance, it needs to be a chemical that has the potential to have a very large market,” says Pitt Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering professor Götz Veser, who co-authored the study along with Giannis Mpourmpakis, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, and three PhD students.

Veser believes that being able to better transform CO2 into methanol would incentivize using carbon capture and sequestration by providing a more economical way to combat climate change.

The global market for methanol — a liquid petrochemical used as a fuel source and to make a variety of products, including resins and pharmaceuticals — is somewhere around 100 million tons per year, Veser says.

It may sound simple, but the process has been challenging: While using catalysts is common in the chemical engineering world, CO2 has shown a resistance to change.

“CO2, in particular, is an extremely stable compound,” Veser explains. “That’s why we’re struggling so much with it.”

Copper is often used to convert CO2, he says, but it’s “not an optimal material” for the process because of its inability to bind CO2. So they experimented with “doping,” the practice of adding a substance into another material to improve its performance. They found that adding small quantities of zirconium changes the chemical properties of copper in a way that allows it to better absorb CO2.

But Veser and his colleagues aren’t the only ones in town looking at ways to reduce or convert industrial CO2 emissions. Researchers at the Alcoa Technical Center near Pittsburgh have been developing the first carbon-free aluminum smelting process. The corporation claims that the revolutionary process produces oxygen and replaces all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional aluminum smelting process.

To advance and commercialize the new process, Alcoa partnered with Rio Tinto and recently announced the formation of Elysis, a joint venture company that will operate out of a research facility in Montreal.

The deal includes a $13 million investment from Apple. CEO Tim Cook says his company looks forward to “one day being able to use aluminum produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products.”

If widely used, the technology — slated to hit the market in 2024 — has the potential to clean up a significant portion of aluminum production, a process that accounts for about 1 percent of CO2 emissions, according to a report from Columbia University.

Less than 1 percent may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the massive amounts of pollution being produced. Even the 100 million tons offset by the carbon conversion process developed by Veser and his team can seem infinitesimal compared to the 10 gigatons of CO2 produced each year.

But, as Veser points out, it’s something. And maybe it’s a powerful beginning.

“The argument that I would make,” he says, “is even if you only take care of 10 percent of the problem, that’s still 10 percent.”

Amanda Waltz

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.