The particles can be produced on an industrial scale at low cost and with minimal environmental impact, providing a vital pathway towards reducing the world's greenhouse emissions, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
"Basically, what we are doing is converting carbon dioxide from carbon oxygen bonds to carbon hydrogen bonds. So, we are converting carbon dioxide back into hydrocarbons," said Noah Malmstadt, a professor at the School of Viterbi Engineering of the USC.
"Hydrocarbons are basic fuel stocks. You can convert them into chemical substances from fuel stocks such as methane or propane. Or you can use them as a basis for chemical synthesis so they can be building blocks to produce more complex chemicals," Malmstadt said.
Carbon emissions could become material for manufacturing consumer products and hydrocarbon fuel, the researchers said.
Malmstadt said that until now, the process to create catalyst particles has been very energy intensive, making it an impractical solution to convert carbon emissions.
Nanoparticles are created by a process in which carbides are heated to temperatures above 600 degrees Celsius, the researchers said.
They said the process makes it difficult to control particle size, which affects their effectiveness as catalysts.
Malmstadt said that, on the contrary, the discovery of the equipment uses a millifluidic reactor process, a very small-scale chemical reactor system, which has a minimal environmental footprint.
This means that the particles can be produced at temperatures as low as 300 degrees Celsius, resulting in smaller and more uniform particles, which makes them ideal for converting CO2 into hydrocarbons.
"We are producing the particles sustainably, using green chemistry methods," said Malmstadt.
"The chemical reactor system operates in channels less than a millimeter wide, which offers a ton of advantages over traditional reactors, particularly in terms of making materials that are very uniform and of very high quality," he said.
Malmstadt said the resulting nanoparticles have a very high surface / mass ratio.
"Then, for every amount of metal you have in the catalyst, you get a more active surface area that can do chemistry," he said.