Emily Cole, 31
Can we cheaply convert carbon dioxide into something useful?
As the chief science officer of a startup called Liquid Light, Emily Cole is attempting to accomplish something that has long thwarted chemists: finding an economical and practical way to turn carbon dioxide, the chief culprit in greenhouse warming, into useful chemicals.
The idea that could make this possible came from a visit to the Princeton University lab of Andrew Bocarsly. Back in 1994, Bocarsly had published an intriguing but largely ignored paper reporting a way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol without using a lot of energy. Bocarsly couldn’t get funding to pursue the research, and the work sat on the shelf until he mentioned it to Cole. She was fascinated and decided to join his lab as a graduate student.
Cole kept tinkering with different catalysts and conditions, increasing the yields of the reactions and learning how to produce other valuable chemicals. The researchers have gone on to show they can convert carbon dioxide into isopropanol, acetone, and more than 30 other chemicals. Moreover, they have shown that light can be used to drive the reactions.
In 2009, Cole and Bocarsly cofounded Liquid Light in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. The company is working to scale up the conversion process and hopes to market ethylene glycol, a chemical widely used to make plastics, as soon as 2017.
—Stephen S. Hall
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