ERC Advanced Grant for conversion of CO2 to fuels

Obtaining fundamental knowledge to improve catalysts

Professor Petra de Jongh, from the Debye Institute at Utrecht University, receives an ERC Advanced Grant of 3.5 million euros for fundamental research into the operation of catalysts. This includes 1 million euros for scientific instruments. The research could lead to accelerating the energy transition, for example by developing catalysts for the efficient conversion of CO2 and hydrogen into sustainable fuels. The research project will run for five years.

Professor Petra de Jongh

CO2 is an attractive carbon source: fuels made from captured CO2 and renewable hydrogen are circular and avoid the use of fossil resources, which contributes to global warming. However, major challenges exist to convert CO2 into renewable fuel on a large scale. Catalysts play a crucial role in this part of the energy transition. They must ensure that the conversion occurs quickly and efficiently, but current catalysts do not deliver the desired results. Fundamental understanding is essential to develop new and better catalysts, and this is precisely the goal of De Jongh's research.

A pinch of magic salt

The development of new catalysts is done, among other things, by adding a small amount of special salts to the catalyst. These salts are called promoters and cause the catalyst to behave differently, for example, make different products. Promoters are widely used in industry. However, not much is known about how they do their work. De Jongh: "I'm intrigued by how little we actually understand about them."

We want to understand how the properties of the metal surface of the catalyst change when you add a chemical element

Chemistry and physics

With the ERC grant, De Jongh and her team will uncover how the complex interaction between a promoter and catalyst occurs. They will specifically focus on polar salts because, acting as promoters, they seem to have an exceptional effect. This research literally takes place at the intersection of chemistry and physics. "We want to understand how the properties of the metal surface of the catalyst change when you add a chemical element”, says De Jongh.

A closer look

An important part of the research is studying catalysts while they are doing their job. The grant includes one million euros for a setup with multiple parallel reactors that mimic the conditions of the catalytic process, such as high pressure. This setup creates the unique opportunity to study, in close detail, what happens during the process. Other advanced techniques De Jongh uses in her research are X-ray absorption spectroscopy and electron microscopy. These are tools that allow her to watch live what happens at the nanoscale between a catalyst and promoter. Something that has only become possible recently, in the last five to ten years.