Western student makes revolutionary discovery - The Western Front: News

Western student makes revolutionary discovery

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Posted: Friday, September 28, 2012 9:06 am

A discovery recently made by a Western graduate student was published in the science journal, “Inorganic Chemistry.”

Zach Thammavongsy spent three years in the lab researching how to inexpensively break down carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide using iron, Thammavongsy said.

The discovery he and his three-person team made in the lab is significant. Before their work, this reaction was only done with  expensive metals such as rhenium, niobium and uranium.

“We have shown that you can convert carbon dioxide to usable carbon monoxide with the cheapest metal on earth, iron,” he  said. 

Assistant professor of chemistry at Western, John Gilbertson, and Thammavongsy’s research adviser, said that because iron is "literally" dirt cheap, this is a beneficial discovery.

“Zach’s discovery is quite significant, as it is the first report of the reduction of CO2 and subsequent release of [carbon monoxide] utilizing iron,” Gilbertson said. 

Gilbertson is a co-author of the study published in the journal. 

This discovery will have a positive impact on the environment, Thammavongsy said. But with the positive, there could be some negative consequences as well.

“Carbon monoxide has a foul reputation in regards to our bodies and carbon monoxide poisoning,” he said.

Carbon monoxide is more reactive than carbon dioxide and is more useful than harmful,  Thammavongsy said. 

Gilbertson also said this is an important discovery because of the fuel production from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a very useful fuel, he said. It can be reformed into diesel fuel.  

“So our process has the potential to replace coal as a feedstock and utilized CO2 instead to make [carbon monoxide],”  Gilbertson said.  

Even with the recent publication in “Inorganic Chemistry,” Thammavongsy said their research is still far from complete.

“I will likely be gone before this project reaches its full potential,” he said. “However, knowing my project will continue on, possibly in the hands of undergraduate Western students is encouraging.” 

Thammavongsy wants to inform undergraduate students about opportunities for research within the chemistry department.

“We are doing basic science and not currently investigating the scaling up or commercialization of the technology,” Gilbertson said. 

There are still other scientific hurdles the team has to overcome, such as what to do with the other oxygen atom from carbon dioxide once it has been removed to make carbon monoxide, he said. 

“Research is still in progress,” Thammavongsy said. “However, I can say the impact our discovery can have on our world would be truly priceless in the preservation of our environment.”

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