The manufacturing of carbon-based materials, such as plastics, disinfectants, and pharmaceuticals, accounts for 10% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions largely due to the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels as raw materials. Scientists have long been investigating methods to construct these materials from the other way around: building up the molecules from carbon dioxide and water using electricity produced from renewable sources.
The heart of such reaction processes is the catalyst. Traditional catalyst discovery is mainly empirical, making the design less efficient and expensive. Yanwei Lum, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, developed a suite of novel techniques to label the atoms in the reaction mixture based on their origin, to yield entirely new insights into the catalytic mechanisms. The breakthrough allowed for the creation of catalysts that only produce one product, eliminating the need for energy-consuming downstream product separations. Using these revolutionary techniques, Yanwei uncovered the role of oxides in the catalyst systems and the importance of water in the reaction mixture. The understanding inspired new strategies to control the carbon dioxide conversion reaction pathways, which could finally lead to the construction of catalyst systems with unprecedented performance.