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Christophe Copéret

Hydrogen at the service of a carbon-free transition in industrial production

In 2018, Air Liquide launched its second Scientific Challenge, focusing on research projects aimed at reducing air pollution and fighting climate change through Essential Small Molecules . In the topic “H2 is coming!”, the French researcher Christophe Copéret, professor at ETH Zurich, was selected because of the work of his research team on the development of catalysts that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into methanol.

You have been awarded for a project to develop efficient catalysts that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into methanol using hydrogen. Can you tell us more about it?

Today methanol has countless industrial applications. However, its production contributes to global warming, because it relies on an energy intensive process, based on carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) derived from methane, a fossil resource. With this project, our objective is to modify this process by using instead green H2 derived from renewable energy and CO2 to develop a closed-loop carbon cycle and thereby a more sustainable process. Our laboratory has been working on ways to understand at the molecular level the role of promoters with the goal to design more efficient catalysts for the conversion of CO2 into green methanol, an important chemical, fuel and fuel additive. So far, we have developed novel catalysts for this transformation based on copper nanoparticles supported on tailored metal oxide supports: they make the reaction faster and highly selective, thereby significantly improving the efficiency for this process.

Why is this process so promising for the environment?

This process would enable to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, allowing to mitigate our environmental impact. Our society relies currently on the use of fossil resources to generate energy and most goods; this is accompanied by the production of large and increasing amounts of CO2. CO2 is in fact generated in large concentration from power plant emissions, the cement industry or the steel industry to cite only a few. Sources of CO2 are not lacking in our world! So, while using methanol as a fuel would also generate CO2, it could be captured and reused, resulting in no net contribution of this greenhouse gas.

A key for the sustainability of this approach is that it must be coupled with the use of green hydrogen: that is, hydrogen produced from renewable sources such as solar or wind power – meaning no CO2 would be emitted in its production. Combining green hydrogen and CO2 would allow creating a closed carbon cycle that would help building a carbon-neutral and sustainable economy.

What prompted you to participate in the Air Liquide Scientific Challenge and what has the collaboration with Air Liquide involved?

When I heard about the challenge, it was very timely, as I was keen to bridge the gap between fundamental research and industry. During the last six years, within the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research – Heat and Energy storage, , with the ultimate goal to develop a process, we had developed a detailed molecular understanding about what makes an efficient catalyst for converting CO2 into methanol. I felt that working with an industrial partner would help us translating our knowledge to modify existing catalysts and improve actual processes. So being selected as a winner in June was a perfect opportunity to turn 6 years of blue-sky science into something useful! 

Since then, we have signed a partnership agreement with Air Liquide and worked together to define the targets for a four-year research programme that will allow us to develop the concept further. I am really proud of my research team – it is really gratifying to see our work recognised at an international level by a world leader in the sector. Now when we discover something new, we can test it directly with Air Liquide in a real pilot: I am very optimistic that the collaboration will help us transfer our knowledge into market-ready technology.

What are the next steps?

While our concrete target is large-scale industrial application, the ultimate goal is to develop a more sustainable society. I think a methanol economy will be one of crucial tools towards this goal. Yet beyond science and technology, the courage of policymakers is needed to make technology like this economically viable, given the current low cost of hydrocarbons. To face the problem of climate change, we need to find innovative ways to decarbonize society. I hope our research can contribute to this dynamic. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but having an industrial partner on board brings fresh ideas and challenges to us in ways we hadn’t thought about before. It is very motivating to be part of a team that could help to mitigate global warming, probably the most urgent threat and issue of our time.

Learn more about the winners of the Scientific Challenge

Article published on November 15, 2019