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Turning greenhouse gas into good energy

Chemistry’s John Gilbertson wins NSF grant for his research revealing a new way to break down carbon dioxide

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Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Gilbert and his student researchers are studying how to turn carbon dioxide into useful compounds such a synthetic fuels or methanol. | Photo by Sam Heim

While he might not be working on turning lead into gold, Chemistry’s John Gilbertson and his research team of graduate and undergraduate students might be unraveling something even more valuable – a way to take the increasingly abundant greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – and transform it into useful compounds such as synthetic fuel or methanol.

Gilbertson, who was just awarded a prestigious five-year, $470,000 Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (Western’s third in three years) for his work, said he is basically just doing what nature does on its own.

“Plants take CO₂ and it recycle it, turning it into a fuel (sugar). What we’re doing is using a catalyst to assist in the breaking-down process as we recycle it into a different fuel,” he said. “The process removes a harmful greenhouse gas and results in a useful compound.”

One practical application of Gilbertson’s research is a parallel use of the existing Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) process that turns coal into synthetic gas, but Gilbertson’s processes eliminate the need for coal altogether.

“Coal to liquids is the formation of syngas, and ultimately diesel fuel, from the gasification of coal.  Our process is similar to that except that we are using abundant and readily available carbon dioxide as our carbon source – replacing coal – to make syngas,” he said.

Gilbertson’s award will fund two undergraduate research assistants and one graduate student per year.