When Yimin Wu set his sights on finding a solution that would impact both sustainable energy and climate change, he turned to nature for his inspiration.

“Green house gases and CO2 are a big problem that lead to climate change,” says Wu. “I looked at how we could mimic plants and nature. Plants absorb CO2 and water and use sunlight to convert them to glucose — fuel for the plant. I wanted to look at the possibility of using a catalyst with CO2 and water to convert into a useful fuel for human use.

Waterloo engineering professor Yimin Wu. Photo: Brian Caldwell, University of Waterloo

Wu, who joined Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering as a professor in 2019, discovered the “artificial leaf” process while leading a team of researchers from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, as well as scientists at California State University, Northridge, and the City University of Hong Kong. Using an inexpensive red powder called cuprous oxide, Wu was able to covert CO2 and water into methanol and oxygen.

Moving from the lab to industry

The discovery of the artificial leaf process has attracted interest from the scientific community. Wu’s natural energy paper has been cited more than 30 times by researchers around the world. His work has also been highlighted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We didn’t expect so much attention, but it has turned out to be great,” says Wu. “ People are talking about it and we’ve been getting lots of inquiries from industry and venture capitalists.”

The much needed attention will allow Wu to move to the next step in his research, which involves scaling the process from a lab setting to a large-scale operation that can be used by industry.

“Before we can commercialize the process, we have to demonstrate that it will work in a reactor plant,” says Wu. “That involves constructing a building-size reactor. We need industry partners and government support to invest and commit to this journey.” 

While there is growing interest and excitement about the technology, implementation plans have been delayed as government resources and funding are focused on combating COVID-19. Wu points out that although COVID-19 must be a priority for governments, climate change continues to be a threat that must be addressed.

“This technology can help the largest emitters, like the oil and steel industries and automotive industries, to reduce emissions,” says Wu. “It can also help governments meet their climate change targets. In Canada, the government has targeted 2050 to reduce our emissions to net zero. Lots of reports are saying that Canada is already behind on those targets.”

Large-scale impact on everyday life

Once researchers can demonstrate the viability of the artificial leaf process on a large scale, implementing the technology will have far-reaching impacts. Wu is confident the technology will deliver a duel impact by providing a new approach for mitigating the causes of climate change while also creating a source for sustainable fuel.

Wu also explains that if electricity can be stored as methanol, it can be converted back to electricity. Currently, electricity producers do not have sustainable storage strategies. With the artificial leaf process, producers will have better options for storing and transporting electricity. In Canada, this approach can help solve the issue of distributing electricity across a vast landscape with remote northern communities.

“When this technology becomes available on the market — it will have a variety of applications – not only will it help combat climate change but it will also provide an energy resource,” says Wu. “The electricity can be stored as liquid fuel. It can be used as household fuel or to power vehicles. It provides a sustainable energy source that will have an impact on daily life.”

Working together to fight climate change

While Wu is confident that this new technology will make a valuable contribution to fighting climate change, he also believes that everyone must take an active role in reaching that net zero target.

“We need to move to action — not just talk about climate change,” says Wu. “Yes, technology is very important, but it’s not the whole scenario. It should be combined with the action of all stakeholders. Everyone has to fight together. We need governments to bring in sound policy and regulations on carbon emissions. That will give companies the motivation to innovate and act before it’s too late.”

Wu will continue his collaboration with the Argonne National Laboratory, California State University, Northridge, and the City University of Hong Kong from his new home at the University of Waterloo. He has also started working with other researchers from all over the world. Although Wu’s work will have a global impact, he would like to see the research take hold in Canada first.

“We’ve been talking to provincial governments so we can move forward,” says Wu. “I want to demonstrate the technology in Canada and then bring it to the world.”