The Future of Fuel Catalyst Technology

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose above 400 parts per million earlier this year – the highest it’s been in at least 800,000 years, according to several major studies.

How can this be stopped? For years, scientists have been looking at advanced fuel catalyst technologies that will more efficiently burn fuel to reduce the dangerous emissions pouring out of truck, cars, generators and factories.

The first generation of that technology is already available and working quite effectively, according to tests from some of the leading laboratories in the country. 

Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Ethanol

Yet the future of fuel catalyst technology only promises to get better. In December, a team based at Rice University used nitrogen-doped graphene quantum dots (NGQDs) as a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide into ethylene and ethanol

“If we can convert a sizable fraction of the carbon dioxide that is emitted, we could curb the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which have been linked to climate change,” explained Paul Kenis, a researcher from the University of Illinois.

The technology is so cutting edge that the researchers do not fully understand how it works. But they found NGQDs worked nearly as efficiently as copper, which is also being tested as a catalyst to reduce carbon dioxide into liquid fuels and chemicals (other catalysts currently on the market employ patented combinations of metallic and rare earth elements). NGQDs keep their catalytic activity for a long time, they report. The NGQDs reduced carbon dioxide by up to 90 percent and converted 45 percent into either ethylene or alcohol.

“It is surprising because people have tried all different kinds of catalysts. And there are only a few real choices such as copper,” Ajayan told “I think what we found is fundamentally interesting, because it provides an efficient pathway to screen new types of catalysts to convert carbon dioxide to higher-value products.”

Making Fuel From Water

In another breakthrough, scientists have found a highly efficient, cost-saving means of using an ultrathin catalyst to create fuel from water by splitting it into oxygen and hydrogen. Just as solar light can generate electricity, the water splitting process could do the same via the generation of clean chemical fuel such as hydrogen, researchers at Australia’s Griffith University’s Centre for Clean Environment and Energy said earlier this month.

All of this technology is being driven in part by proposed federal Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions rules for heavy trucks. These rules, which go into effect in 2021, are already driving future commercial vehicle designs. To meet the increased carbon reduction goals for heavy-duty commercial vehicles – a 25-percent improvement is required – manufacturers must find new ways to improve fuel economy.

How Catalysts Work

Simply put, a catalyst is a substance or device that changes the rate and efficiency at which fuel is burned.

As fuel passes through the current generation of leading catalysts on the market – typically cylindrical devices using precisely manufactured combinations of rare earth elements and refined metals – reactions are triggered that allow the fuel to burn more efficiently.

How? Polarization or separation of clustered fuel molecules allow for more molecules to be exposed to oxygen. In a typical engine combustion process, fuel molecules have a tendency to cluster together. At the point of combustion the outer molecules shield the inner molecules from being completely covered with oxygen.

The result is that the molecules untouched by oxygen go unburned and are blown out the exhaust as wasted fuel in the form of CO, CO2, SO2, NOx, total hydrocarbons, particulate matter and other harmful greenhouse gases.

As fuel passes through the catalyst, a reaction occurs just prior to combustion that separates the clustered molecules so more are exposed to oxygen. As the combustion process is completed, far fewer fuel molecules are wasted and spewed from the engine as exhaust. The result:  Less fuel is needed to do the same amount of work.

As the fuel burns more efficiently, there is literally less waste. As the combustion process becomes more thorough, less wasted fuel is pushed out of the exhaust. That’s a serious reduction in dangerous emissions that can lead to human health hazards and global warming.