Western Washington UniversityCommunications and Marketing
DATE: February 8, 2010 5:52:03 PM PST
WWU Chemist Working to Turn Greenhouse Gas into Usable Liquid Fuel

Contact: John Gilbertson, WWU assistant professor of Chemistry, (360) 650-2790.

BELLINGHAM As the Earth’s temperature continues to creep upward – the last decade was the hottest 10-year span in history according to a report recently issued by NASA – Western Washington University’s John Gilbertson is researching methods that could put a significant dent in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.

WWU Chemist John Gilbertson is researching how to turn the carbon dioxide emitted from power plants and other sources into usable liquid methanol.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas – increasing levels of the chemical compound since the start of the industrial revolution are the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect, which traps solar radiation in the atmosphere and leads to global temperature rise.

Gilbertson, an assistant professor of Chemistry at WWU, is researching methods to take carbon dioxide and combine it with hydrogen to make liquid methanol, a useful fuel and feedstock for making other chemicals. More specifically, Gilbertson and his team of students are investigating how to use nanoparticle catalysts to break the bonds of both the carbon dioxide and hydrogen molecules, allowing for them to then be recombined to form liquid methanol.

“Nature does a similar thing in photosynthesis – it recycles carbon dioxide by turning it into a fuel (sugar),” he said. “What we’re doing is using a catalyst to assist in the breaking-down process as we recycle it into a different fuel. Similar technology is currently online in Japan, but the trick here is to build the most efficient catalyst possible. It takes energy to break these molecules down and combine them back together, and if the catalyst isn’t extremely efficient, it takes more energy to do the process than you save in the long run.”

One practical application of Gilbertson’s research would be the typical belching smokestack of a power plant; as the carbon dioxide entered the stack, it would be converted into methanol using his catalysts and the power plant’s heat, never escaping into the atmosphere. The methanol could then be employed in a wide range of uses, such as methanol fuel cells or as a transportation fuel.

Gilbertson’s research is being assisted by three undergraduates who have been working on the project for more than a year: Hannah Halliday (Shaw Island), William Benjamin (Bonney Lake), and Tristan Butler (Cheney).

Butler said that working on the project has opened new avenues into careers and further schooling.

“Prior to working in this research group I had no aspirations of going to graduate school in chemistry.  I was content to just get my bachelor's degree and find a job.  Now I have discovered that I like working in a lab and solving problems; research requires me to think about things in a very practical and new way. It is very challenging, but rewarding,” Butler said.

Gilbertson said he knows that many different technologies are needed to put a dent in the warming of the Earth, and they will need to be plentiful, cheap, and easy to manufacture.

“Estimates are that to make a dent in the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels, we’ll need to remove about a gigaton – a billion tons of it – each year. So employing cheap, easy-to-use methods will be crucial, and these catalysts will fit that bill,” he said.

For more information on Gilbertson’s research, contact him at (360) 650-2790 or john.gilbertson@wwu.edu.

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