Photo Credits: Diagram from Nature Research Paper

As we all know, global warming is one of the worst recent developments of our time. It continues to be relevant to our everyday lives as we keep using fossil fuels in our cars, trains, and buses, and as it affects the environment. 

Just recently, is was reported that Larsen C, the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica, has cracked. If the crack keeps increasing in size, it could mean Larsen C will lose 9 per cent to 12 per cent of its total area, which would be devastating and have major consequences for sea levels. 

A major player in global warming is greenhouse gases, which are responsible for trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and thereby heating it up. The most abundant of the greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), as it makes up 22 per cent of the atmosphere.  

In the past couple of years, the world as a whole has tried to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and move towards more renewable energy resources such as wind or solar power. Specifically, the Canadian government is involved in initiatives such as signing a G20 commitment to phase out subsidies of fossil fuels, and investing a $2 billion grant into becoming a low-carbon economy. 

In the private sector, automotive companies have moved towards making smaller engines and increasing the production of hybrids to try and reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. 

At the University of Toronto, researchers may have figured how to reduce carbon dioxide and maybe even make it useful—by making it into a hydrocarbon. This research team, headed by Dr. Edward H. Sargent from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is comprised of members of many different departments, including biochemistry, pharmacy, and materials science. 

The reaction of turning carbon dioxide into a hydrocarbon such as carbon monoxide (CO) usually happens very slowly due to the low concentration of carbon dioxide surrounding the catalyst, a chemical that makes the reaction goes faster.

The solution that the researchers have come up with is to use gold, nanostructured electrodes. Electrodes allow electricity to flow through a metal catalyst and remove an oxygen from the carbon dioxide to form carbon monoxide. This allows the free oxygen to bond with hydrogen and form water. The gold, cone-shaped nano-electrodes allow 10 times as much electricity to flow through to the catalyst when compared to the original planar electrodes. This in turn means carbon dioxide is being reduced and converted to carbon monoxide at a faster rate. This is great news, as carbon dioxide levels will decrease substantially. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide is almost useless as a hydrocarbon and cannot be used as fuel. 

Therefore, as time progresses, we must find more ways to convert carbon monoxide into a useful hydrocarbon which can power our daily lives. Although this does not offer a concrete solution to global warming, it is still an important achievement.  

Other initiatives that are currently ongoing to prevent the formation of greenhouse gases include boosting the amount of energy-efficient products in circulation, as well as considering other forms of energy, such as nuclear energy. It may just be that the world must run on many different forms of energy so as to limit our use of resources and to prevent the rest of our world from melting away. 

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