Harnessing the Sun

Dr. Elizabeth Papish in her lab.
Dr. Elizabeth Papish in her lab.

In today’s society, greenhouse gas emissions are one of the biggest concerns of scientists around the globe. Their accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere can damage our climate in devastating ways. But one UA professor is developing cutting-edge technology to slow these emissions while creating a product helpful for society.

Dr. Elizabeth Papish, an associate professor in UA’s chemistry department, recently received a National Science Foundation grant for her work revolutionizing the world of green chemistry by creating a more efficient catalyst to convert greenhouse gases into useful products.

The project aims to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by converting it and eventually using it to make petroleum-based products.

“Almost every single product we use comes from petroleum,” Papish said. “Pharmaceuticals, plastics, and everything that makes our society modern. They’re all basically made from petroleum. If you can take carbon dioxide and make carbon monoxide, that’s a building block that you can use to make fuels or other products.”

This process of converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide is not new. However, the current methods for this reaction use lots of energy from fossil fuels. Papish’s goal is to make a catalyst that produces the same product, while still being environmentally friendly and cheap to manufacture.

“There are already methods in existence to make carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide,” Papish said. “But as soon as you say, ‘I want to be low cost, and I don’t want to use any fossil fuels,’ there’s nothing in existence.”

In order to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, Papish’s team is attempting to use a more efficient energy source to power the catalyst: the sun.

“The challenge is just using sunlight,” Papish said. “We’re making catalysts that speed up turning carbon dioxide into monoxide, and use sunlight.”

Papish, in collaboration with Jared Delcamp of the University of Mississippi and Edwin Webster of Mississippi State University, is currently designing, building, and testing catalysts. The catalysts are made at UA, then tested at the University of Mississippi. Once testing is completed, researchers at Mississippi State perform computations to better model the catalysts and help predict other potentially useful combinations of catalysts.

The three-year, $624,000 grant will be divided among the three universities involved. UA will receive the bulk of the grant, amounting to almost $358,000. This amount will go towards paying undergraduate and graduate researchers assisting Papish on the project. It will also go towards supplies and chemicals to build and tests the catalysts.

In addition to paid student research assistants, students in Papish’s inorganic chemistry class also have the opportunity to participate in her groundbreaking research. Throughout the class, students learn elements of inorganic chemistry by testing the catalysts in a lab setting.

The grant will last until 2021, and Papish hopes that the team will have made significant progress by then. Her hope is that the catalyst will create a greener, more efficient world for all.