Oil is the black gold of the modern world. Plastic, nylon, fertilizer, dye, medicine, a lot of important products are made from oil. The modern chemical industry uses a top-down method to produce these products: shorten the long carbon chain molecules in the oil and turn them into materials with shorter carbon chains. This process is accompanied by a large amount of carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Haotian Wang, an assistant professor at Rice University, has developed a revolutionary method to produce ethylene, formic acid, ethanol, and other valuable chemicals from the bottom-up. He uses “unwanted” carbon dioxide as the raw material and renewable electricity as the energy input. This green, sustainable, and economical process reduces the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere and obtains green chemical products at the same time.
The challenge of this technology is the lack of highly active and selective catalysts. To solve the problem, Haotian reduced the size of the catalyst to atomic-scale and developed a game-changing “single atom catalyst” with record-high activity and selectivity (99%). With it, they built an artificial-photosynthesis system with a breakthrough solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency of 12.7%, which is orders of magnitudes higher than natural photosynthesis in green plants. They also developed a solid-state electrolyte technology to produce high purity liquid chemical products which can be directly put into use without separation or purification. At present, they are working together with the industry to realize the electrochemical production of a series of chemical products such as hydrogen peroxide, ethanol, formic acid, and acetic acid. They hope to apply them on large scale energy storage, chemical production, and waste-water treatment. If successful, this new concept of "green chemical engineering" will be a clean revolution for the chemical industry.