Coca-Cola Europacific Partners announced a research partnership last Friday with the Peidong Yang Research Group of the UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry to develop technology for the conversion of air into sugar.
This collaboration is a part of a research project that began with the NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge. NASA’s challenge directed competitors to find a novel, nonbiological process that converts carbon dioxide into glucose.
“After three years of effort, we won the top prize,” said Peidong Yang, a campus chemistry professor. “The news got out, and Coca-Cola was very interested. They reached out to us, and they wanted to further this technology.”
According to Yang, Coca-Cola wanted to optimize the technology for two main reasons: to reduce their CO2 footprint — about a quarter of which can be attributed to their use of agricultural ingredients like sugar — and to make use of potentially harmful carbon dioxide gas.
Yang noted that the goal is to retain the greenhouse gas and turn it into an industrially useful product. On the industrial level, his group’s technology could help society progress toward a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative state.
“We need to use any sort of available technology to really capture CO2 and use it, not just sequester it,” Yang said.
The group’s process involves the reduction of carbon dioxide using two different catalysts, one developed by Yang’s team, to form two intermediate products: formaldehyde and glycolaldehyde. Once the products are formed, Yang said, mild chemical reactions essentially condense them into sugar.
Yang noted that, per the NASA competition requirements, the entire process must be completed using inorganic, nonbiological catalysts, as similar biological processes are already well-established.
“For the inorganic version, little is known, so it’s kind of a scientific and also a technology challenge,” Yang said. “Within three years we’ve managed to figure out a way using this two-step process … Now it’s sort of a parallel with the biological version of glucose production from CO2.”
NASA’s challenge involved providing a concept and demonstrating its feasibility. Yang said that his team has achieved this goal, showing that it is possible to convert carbon dioxide into a mix of sugar with electricity.
Yang noted that the team will continue to improve the process. Coca-Cola’s support will help the team optimize their technology, which has yet to fully convert the formaldehyde and glycolaldehyde into glucose.
“The purity is not ideal,” Yang said. “Certainly, Coca-Cola wants purer glucose. Then, the yield and production rates … are the two major bottlenecks we need to remove, and in the next few years we want to optimize both the selectivity and purity of a particular sugar and the production rates.”