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Anyone who suggests that we might fix the atmospheric carbon problem just by recycling carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into, say, plastic, probably hasn’t run the numbers: the 3% human contribution to annual global carbon dioxide emissions is 23 billion metric tons, whereas annual global plastics production amounts to only 91 million metric tons. Even if the necessary technology were practical, in other words, the entire annual global human plastics demand would consume less than 1% of the entire annual global human carbon dioxide surplus.

Still, every little bit helps, and this copper-based catalyst recently developed by Elisabeth Bouwman and co-workers at Leiden University in the Netherlands represents a vast improvement over previous atmospheric carbon-dioxide-fixing processes. Most of these are poisoned by oxygen, which means that you can’t just pump air into the reactor without removing the oxygen first. Bouwman’s catalyst, however, reacts with carbon dioxide but not oxygen, producing oxalate, which is a useful feedstock for the manufacture of methyl glycolate and other organic compounds. And while Bouwman’s material is not a “true” catalyst in that it actually forms a compound with carbon dioxide and has to be regenerated in a second reaction, the regeneration step can be done electrochemically with remarkably little energy.

Here’s the abstract of Bouwman’s recent paper in Science, and here’s an audio interview with Bouwman from the Science podcast.