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Scientists using artificial photosynthesis for greener ethylene production

by Dr Prem Community Writer
greener ethylene production

Plastics are something we can try to reduce or try to find innovative ways to make the production process and materials greener. Wherever you are right now, just turn around and you would see the amount of plastic surrounding you. It is one of the things which we can’t seem to do away with. It cannot be degraded and the production process globally releases CO2 in millions of tons, thus leading to global warming. Now, scientists all over the world are trying to find greener ways to produce plastics, and the latest development is the method of producing plastic with the help of artificial photosynthesis. Read on to find out more:

Conventional method of producing plastic and its environmental impact

producing plastic

Usually, the colorless gas ethylene is made by subjecting conventional fossil fuels to extremely high temperatures ranging from 750 – 950 degrees Celsius. This process is called steam cracking and is used to create ethylene and also to generate the very high temperature required to crack fossil fuels. In this method, approximately 2 tons CO2 is emitted and in 2015, globally, 170 million tons of CO2 is released in the production of ethylene and is expected to exceed 220 million tons by the year 2020. 

Singapore’s NUS team’s latest research

To reduce the pollution and also to conserve fossil fuels which are depleted in plastic production, a new source of ethylene has to be found. Singapore’s NUS researchers have developed an innovative way to produce ethylene, through the process of artificial photosynthesis. The method involves water, copper, and CO2 to manufacture ethylene, the key building block in the manufacturing of plastic, which does not release any pollutants. The process is powered with the help of light.

The head researcher, Prof Yeo, had been working on an alternative method of ethylene production. He was motivated by two main reasons, to find a greener method of ethylene production, and also to conserve fossil fuels. His invention, the machine which is a little smaller than a football, creates ethylene by running electricity through copper, using water and Co2.

How it works

greener ethylene production

The copper is placed into the water which has CO2 dissolved in it. The copper acts as the reaction catalyst, and CO2 and water ‘ break up’ on the surface of the copper, which rearranges atoms to form ethylene. Carbon atoms from the CO2 combine with water’s hydrogen atoms to form ethylene, comprising of 2 carbon atoms and 4 atoms of hydrogen. Copper is not consumed during the process, and the entire process is eco-friendly too. More so, due to the electricity used in the process is solar electricity. The researchers also managed to achieve a stable and continuous production of ethylene, which made their discovery quite significant.

Though it is not a commercial venture right now, it is a step in the right direction and can one day revolutionize the plastic production process.

Berkeley lab’s research to produce green ethylene

The scientists at Berkeley Labs have succeeded in using photosynthesis to efficiently convert CO2 into alcohols and fuels. This development is being lauded as a milestone to move towards the goal of producing sustainable fuel. According to a study, this development is the first to convert CO2 into ethanol and ethylene directly.

The researchers were able to accomplish this by boosting every component of the photovoltaic and electrochemical system to decrease voltage loss as well as producing new materials in case the existing ones won’t suffice. According to the researchers, This is a great improvement as they were able to use sunlight to produce fuels directly. This is a much greener method of producing ethylene than the methods currently being used.

Works throughout the day


The process of artificial photosynthesis will not just happen only when the sun is shining at noon. The scientists varied the light levels or the brightness to demonstrate that the system was efficient even in conditions of low light. A new cathode known as nancoral, made it possible for the system to produce the target fuels encompassing a range of conditions in a stable manner, just like plants. Another advantage of this method was that carbon can be broken up using much less energy.

The above research proves that ethylene can be produced in a greener way, and hopefully will soon be commercially used, reducing the environmental impact of ethylene production.