Climate tech: Zimbabwean scientist turns carbon dioxide into methanol to minimise emissions

Making energy materials like formic acid, methanol from carbon dioxide released from factories can be important for emerging economies, says Project Lead Gift Mehlana
Photo for representation: iStock
Photo for representation: iStock

A scientist in Zimbabwe is producing methanol and other energy materials using carbon dioxide from industrial activities, according to the African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

Gift Mehlana is leading a research group that focuses on the development of novel porous materials for capturing waste carbon dioxide emitted from factories. He has a background in converting carbon dioxide into methanol, which is a clean burning fuel.

Mehlana said the primary objective of their research is to utilise carbon dioxide that emanates from the burning of fossil fuels to provide energy. “To achieve this, our research has focused on developing new materials capable of capturing and converting carbon dioxide from various points of emissions to produce energy materials such formic acid and methanol,’’ he said. 

Formic acid is regarded as a convenient way of storing hydrogen, he said, adding that formate is posing as an excellent hydrogen carrier in fuel cells, making it a highly exploitable chemical on the hydrogen energy storage front. Formate has an energy content that is at least five times greater than commercially available lithium-ion batteries, the scientist explained. Formate can also be used in various chemical industries such pharmaceutical, food and chemical manufacturing to make products that are useful in people’s daily lives, he added. Mehlana is a Lecturer in the Department of Chemical Sciences at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe. 

He underlined the importance of methanol for emerging economies. It can be blended with gasoline to improve air quality, used to make other clean-burning fuels and can be easily integrated with the fuel distribution infrastructure available on the African continent, he added. 

To date, the researcher said, they have prepared a wide range of materials known as metal-organic frameworks in their laboratory. The materials are made up of metal ions or metal clusters connected together by organic linkers, he shared, adding:

Our materials showed interesting properties such as chemical stability and were good candidates for housing precious metal catalysts such as platinum, rhodium and iridium responsible for conversion of carbon dioxide to formic acid.

The results of their studies are encouraging as they can be used to design materials which are highly selective towards carbon dioxide for use in capturing the waste gas from Industrial emissions, according to the scientist.

Zimbabwe has a number of companies that are involved in burning of coal to produce energy and cement in industry and they produce a lot of the greenhouse gas from their activities, Mehlana noted. 

According to him, the last phase of the project would be designing the prototypes and engaging the local industries to implement the developed technologies. 

“If this venture is successful, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions will be significantly reduced in Zimbabwe. This will help the country fight climate change and global warming, while also producing energy materials that are vital for the 21th century as we move towards a circular and green economy,” he said. 

There is need as a country to train the next generation of scientists with specific profiles in clean energy technology, he said.

Globally, the world pumps nearly 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by buring fossil fuels such as coal and oil every year to achieve energy demands, according to Mehlana. 

Their initiative seeks to help with developmental problems faced by populations living in sub-Saharan Africa by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industries and cement production.

Mehlana has received funding support from the AAS mentorship programme and the Royal Society which enabled him to collaborate with scientists in other countries.  

He is also a fellow of the Future Leaders-African independent Research (FLAIR) programme, which supports talented early-career researchers who have potential  to become leaders in their field. 

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