When Chemical and Biomedical Engineering student Monica Padilla graduates this week with her Master’s degree, she will have the satisfaction of knowing her research helped develop the science to answer the question - can a problem gas become an industrial solution?

Padilla has been working with Research Professor Alexey Serov on ways to chemically convert carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into products that can be used in industrial processes. The idea is to capture carbon dioxide coming from electrical plants that burn coal or other fossil fuels and store it or use it immediately, thus reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

“My thesis is based on the idea that changing the surface of a known metal catalyst will change the kind of products that form on it,” said Padilla.

Instead of using something like metallic copper foil, a porous copper nanoparticle can be used instead. The chemical transformation occurs by electro reduction.

“If you think of water flowing through a sponge, how big the holes are and how tight that material is, that is going to affect how easily and readily water flows in and out of that sponge,” Padilla said. "The benefit is the kind of gas the process produces. If you can control how carbon dioxide is chemically changed into one or two specific products, then the process may become economically viable."

In collaboration with the expertise of Olga Baturina, from the Naval Research Laboratories, Padilla has developed promising materials which do just that.

The long-term goal would be to generate a product less damaging to the environment that electric companies could use to supplement wind or solar energy at times they are not available.

That’s exactly what Mantra Energy Alternatives Ltd., a start-up company based in Canada is interested in doing.

“Mantra technology is taking CO2 electro reduction and trying to scale it up to actually make a system that can do this,” said Padilla.

Mantra uses the samples from the University of New Mexico and employs them on a larger scale to see if they get the same results.