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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials October 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Copper Foams Aiding to Reduce CO2 Levels

Why is this topic significant?

Rising atmospheric levels of CO2 are causing increasing concern. Novel systems that use CO2 as a feedstock to produce more valuable chemicals could help to reduce the concentration of this greenhouse gas.

Description

In August 2014, researchers from Brown University's Center for the Capture and Conversion of CO2 published the results of their research into novel metallic catalysts based on novel foam-like materials. Metal foams could provide a framework for the efficient reduction of CO2 into chemicals that are both more useful and less harmful to the environment. The stability of CO2 molecules makes them exceedingly difficult to break down into other components; copper is the only metal that can reduce the gas into more valuable hydrocarbons. The use of copper foams—which exhibit a considerably higher surface area and therefore more reaction sites than a simple planar metal surface exhibits—enables vastly improved conversion efficiencies in comparison with those of other forms. The researchers found that using copper foam—electrodeposited in the presence of hydrogen to form a network of pores and channels—to reduce CO2 resulted in the formation of formic acid and, unusually, small quantities of propene.

Implications

Catalytic processes are already in use to break down CO2 into more useful products. For example, the George Olah Plant in Iceland converts CO2 into methanol. The Brown University research provides further proof that catalyst architecture is extremely important in determining both the efficiency and the final products of a reaction.

Despite the promising results, further development of this technology is necessary before it finds use in any commercial applications. For example, optimization of the copper-foam architecture—in terms of pore depth and diameter—could enable the researchers to adjust or enhance the product profile. Eventually, specially tuned catalyst architectures could potentially produce specific products. Alternatively, the development of techniques that fabricate the metallic foams using, for instance, polymer scaffolds could potentially yield far more regular and highly ordered structures.

Additional development would be necessary to enable industrial-scale use of the Brown University materials—limiting any immediate implications. However, the use of metallic foams to reduce CO2 could prove to be an extremely useful source of formic acid—an important feedstock for microbes that produce biofuels.

Impacts/Disruptions

Perhaps the principal long-term benefits of CO2-conversion schemes would be of an environmental nature, reducing greenhouse-gas concentrations and aiding to curb global warming. However, for any nonnegligible effect to occur, widespread implementation would be necessary. A strong driver for such widespread implementation would be the potential to manufacture large volumes of industrial chemicals or alternative fuels from a sustainable carbon source that exists in abundance rather than from diminishing stocks of fossil fuels.

Metallic-foam materials also hold a great deal of potential—beyond catalysis—in a range of other applications such as sensors, high efficiency heat exchangers, or battery electrodes. However, commercialization of these applications remains distant and would also require significant additional research and development.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Energy, manufacturing, automobiles

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Novel Copper Catalysts Reduce Cost of Photovoltaics

Why is this topic significant?

Economics largely determines the extent to which electricity-generation methods find use. Reducing the cost of photovoltaics processing could enable this technology to take a leading role in future power generation.

Description

In September 2014, scientists at Natcore Technology Inc.—a spin-off company based at Rice University—published a press release detailing the results of their research into the use of copper catalysts in the fabrication of photovoltaic cells. Metal catalysts improve the effectiveness of etching processes that roughen the surface of silicon photovoltaic cells. Subjecting silicon wafers to this process causes a reduction in reflectivity from approximately 40% to less than 1%—significantly increasing the amount of light that the photovoltaic cells can transform into useful electricity. Initially, gold found use in these processes. However, researchers determined that exchanging gold for silver enabled significant savings—gold can cost 150 times more than silver. The developments at Natcore Technology—swapping silver for copper—enable further savings of a factor of 100, a full 15 000 times cheaper than the gold catalysts that found use initially. Only minute quantities of catalyst are necessary for the production of a single photovoltaic cell, which means that swapping silver for copper results in savings of approximately $0.01. However, when commercial manufacturers scale the process up to fabricate solar panels for a large industrial facility, these savings can accumulate to over $100 000.

Implications

Some technical challenges remain before Natcore Technology's processes are ready for full-scale industrial manufacturing. For example, the researchers must ensure that they completely remove the copper catalyst in order to extend the solar-cell lifetime, and they are also working on methods to shorten the etching time. However, substantial financial savings mean that these techniques are definitely worth pursuing for Natcore Technology. The company does not itself construct solar cells but operates a business model that aims to generate revenue through licensing IP and by selling equipment and chemicals. Natcore Technology currently holds 18 patents related to photovoltaic-processing technologies and has another 36 pending. The development of novel low-cost catalysts could prove highly lucrative for Natcore Technology. However, perhaps more important, these developments could also have important implications for the photovoltaics industry in general.

Impacts/Disruptions

Improving the economics of the processing of photovoltaics is the clear driver behind Natcore Technology's research. Any financial advantages that solar power can accrue over competing power-generation technologies—both renewable and nonrenewable—will advance its position as a potential dominant force in the future energy landscape. The widespread replacement of fossil fuels with solar power would also result in significant environmental benefits in terms of reducing the global carbon footprint.

Despite Natcore Technology's currently focusing solely on the photovoltaics market, the company also claims that the developments above could find use in the semiconductor industry, aerospace applications, architectural coatings, or optical components. Broadening the applications in which these novel processes could find use also widens the potential revenue streams for Natcore Technology.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Photovoltaics, power generation, energy infrastructure, semiconductors, construction, aerospace

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: