Friday, October 3, 2014

Scientists Turned Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen by Zapping It with a Laser


Photosynthesis sure is a miracle, isn’t it? It allows plants, bacteria, and algae to take carbon dioxide and, with the help of a little sunlight, turn it into the oxygen we all breathe. But now scientists have taken photosynthesis out of the equation and have managed to make oxygen (O2) by zapping carbon dioxide (CO2) with a laser. 

In chemistry, the general wisdom is that molecules, if we were to anthropomorphize them, are lazy. Carbon dioxide, when its bonds are broken into its component parts, takes the “minimum energy path,” meaning it will break into one oxygen atom and a carbon monoxide molecule (CO), because, as chemists Arthur Suits and David Parker explain in a new analysis in Science, CO “possesses a much more stable diatomic bond than O2.” 

If I were to do an ASCII art version of what the chemical bonds in carbon dioxide look like, it would be something like this:
Carbon is double bonded to the oxygen atoms, and it's way easier, chemically speaking, to simply lop off one of those bonds and create a CO molecule and an oxygen atom.

So, the conventional wisdom has been that under almost all circumstances, it’d be impossible to take carbon dioxide—say, from a human’s exhalation, for instance—and turn it back into gaseous oxygen, which would require two oxygen atoms. But then, researchers at the University of California, Davis decided to try doing just that by exciting carbon dioxide using what’s known as a “high energy vacuum ultraviolet laser.” 

For the rest of the story:

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