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USC, NREL team develops sustainably produceable nanoparticle for thermocatalytic CO2 hydrogenation; emissions into fuels

Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, collaborating with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), have developed a mild and scalable synthesis route for a molybdenum carbide nanoparticle that can convert CO2 into fuel.


The particles can be produced at an industrial scale at a low cost, and with minimal environmental impact, providing an attractive pathway toward reducing the world’s greenhouse emissions.

Transition metal carbides (TMCs) have demonstrated outstanding potential for utilization in a wide range of catalytic applications because of their inherent multifunctionality and tunable composition. However, the harsh conditions required to prepare these materials have limited the scope of synthetic control over their physical properties.

The development of low-temperature, carburization-free routes to prepare TMCs would unlock the versatility of this class of materials, enhance our understanding of their physical properties, and enable their cost-effective production at industrial scales.

Here, we report an exceptionally mild and scalable solution-phase synthesis route to phase-pure molybdenum carbide (α-MoC1-x) nanoparticles (NPs) in a continuous flow millifluidic reactor. We exploit the thermolytic decomposition of Mo(CO)6 in the presence of a surface-stabilizing ligand and a high boiling point solvent to yield MoC1−x NPs that are colloidally stable and resistant to bulk oxidation in air.

To demonstrate the utility of this synthetic route to prepare catalytically active TMC NPs, we evaluated the thermochemical CO2 hydrogenation performance of α-MoC1−x NPs dispersed on an inert carbon support. The α-MoC1−x/C catalyst exhibited a 2-fold increase in both activity on a per-site basis and selectivity to C2+ products as compared to the bulk α-MoC1−x analogue.

—Baddour et al.

Noah Malmstadt, professor in USC Viterbi’s Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, is one of the authors of the research, in collaboration with Frederick G. Baddour from NREL and Richard Brutchey, professor of Chemistry at USC. Their work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Malmstadt said that the aim of the project was to capture carbon emissions from an emission source, such as a flue, and then to convert it into usable fuels, with the nanoparticles functioning as a catalyst to enable the reaction.

Basically we’re turning the carbon dioxide from carbon oxygen bonds to carbon hydrogen bonds. So, we’re turning carbon dioxide back into hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are basic fuel stock. You can either turn them into fuel stock chemicals such as methane or propane. Or you can use them as the basis for chemical synthesis so they can be building blocks for making more complex chemicals.

—Noah Malmstadt

Malmstadt said that until now, the process for creating the catalyst particles has been very energy intensive, making it an impractical solution for converting carbon emissions. The carbides are created using a process where they are heated to temperatures higher than 600 degrees centigrade, a process that makes it difficult to control the size of the particles, which impacts on their effectiveness as catalysts.

In contrast, the team’s discovery uses a millifluidic reactor process, a very small-scale chemical reactor system, which has a minimal environmental footprint. This means the particles can be produced at temperatures as low as 300 degrees centigrade, resulting in smaller, more uniform particles, which make them ideal for converting CO2 to hydrocarbons.

The chemical reactor system operates in channels that are less than a millimeter across, offering advantages over traditional reactors, particularly in terms of making materials that are very uniform and very high quality, with a very high surface-area-to-mass ratio.

The solution-phase synthesis strategy presented in this work is a facile and versatile method for preparing nanostructured, stable, and readily dispersible group 6 TMCs. The methods presented herein require no reactive gases or additional thermal treatments to produce phase-pure TMCs, relying instead on the extremely mild thermolytic decomposition of metal−carbonyl precursors. Further, the continuous flow mF approach developed highlights the scalability of this synthetic strategy and demonstrates the feasibility of the production of catalytically relevant quantities of nanostructured TMCs.

The resultant dispersible NPs can be deposited on any catalyst support, and, as demonstrated here with the thermocatalytic CO2 reduction over NP-MoC1−x/C, their performance on a per-site basis represents a 2-fold improvement as compared to the bulk α-MoC1−x analogue, emphasizing the superior Mo utilization of the nanostructured catalyst. In addition, the increased selectivity toward C2+ products over the NP- MoC1−x/C catalyst highlights the opportunity for the controlled nanostructuring of TMCs to be employed to tune the product slate with the facile synthetic method presented.

—Baddour et al.


  • Frederick G. Baddour, Emily J. Roberts, Anh T. To, Lu Wang, Susan E. Habas, Daniel A. Ruddy, Nicholas M. Bedford, Joshua Wright, Connor P. Nash, Joshua A. Schaidle, Richard L. Brutchey, and Noah Malmstadt (2020) “An Exceptionally Mild and Scalable Solution-Phase Synthesis of Molybdenum Carbide Nanoparticles for Thermocatalytic CO2 Hydrogenation” Journal of the American Chemical Society 142 (2), 1010-1019 doi: 10.1021/jacs.9b11238


ron ingman

Help me understand the big picture here...

Whereas we have multiple GHG sources sectors( transport, Electrical generation, materials production...) and multiple generation tools ( nuclear/ wind/ solar/geothermal).... just which sector can do these two things:?

1. lower GHG emission more than nuclear power.
2. practically capture CO2 for further use.

Not Electrical generation,
Not ground transport ( cannot capture CO2 practically)
Not industrial materials production.

So why bark up the wrong tree?

Is there a clear roadmap( or hierarchical statement ) which identifies a sector that can show a longterm benefit from carbon capture?

And be careful in you answer, because keeping carbon in the ground is the most effective carbon capture AND displacing fossil fuel markets, with say nuclear energy, has got to be more effective in the short term, and long term. ( hey it already is in use)

Any concise rational on the ultimate benefits of carbon capture?


convert it into usable fuels...
Reuse to reduce.


@ron ingman

You are assuming that there is one answer, which someone in a God like position of power will be able to impose.

Life is messier than that, and multiple means are going to be tried out, and used in different circumstances.

In 'the age of oil' for most people in most of the world their primary heating and cooking source remained animal dung and wood, and still does.

I have been an advocate of nuclear power for this last half century or so, but it is not going to sweep to universality, and in the West is currently barely being built out at all.

Carbon capture, nuclear, solar and everything else will be tried out, and will fight it out.

Sweeping dictats from f irst principles by those in power don't work out.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


This kind of thing should set off alarm bells:

Malmstadt said that the aim of the project was to capture carbon emissions from an emission source, such as a flue, and then to convert it into usable fuels, with the nanoparticles functioning as a catalyst to enable the reaction.
Get this:  they intend to
  1. burn a fossil fuel in air,
  2. capture some of the CO2 from the flue gas, and
  3. use hydrogen to convert this captured CO2 into hydrocarbons.

Why not just burn hydrogen in the first place?  If you don't have hydrogen handy right then, you can't do anything with the CO2 you capture anyway.

This sort of inverted scheme just screams "greenwashing".


We burn fossil fuels in power plants and will for decades to come.


And it only took a day for Captain Obvious to figure that out.

I'll be nicer if you'll be smarter.


That is not possible for you.


@ SJC:
"We burn fossil fuels in power plants and will for decades to come. "
Yep; you're probably right. With the top fool in W-DC propagating everything except something sensible. But many nations worldwide won't!
America first! (to go down the drain)

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