A Canadian research team claims victory in the race to find a highly effective method for converting carbon dioxide into methanol, which can be used as a low-emissions fuel for vehicles.

The Laval University team made the breakthrough, but admits that for the moment the single-step process is expensive.

In the presence of oxygen, methanol combustion produces CO2 and water. Frederic-Georges Fontaine, chemistry professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, says the search was for catalysts that would yield the opposite reaction.

The catalyst developed by Fontaine and his team is made of two chemical groups: borane, a compound of boron, carbon and hydrogen; and phosphine, made up of phosphorus, carbon and hydrogen.

“Unlike most catalysts developed thus far to convert CO2 into methanol, ours contains no metal, which reduces both the costs and toxic hazard of the catalyst,” Fontaine says in a statement.

CO2-to-methanol catalysis requires a source of hydrogen and chemical energy.

The researchers tried using a compound called hydroborane (BH3), and say in their report to the Journal of the American Chemical Society the results have been spectacular. The reaction achieved is two times more effective than the best catalyst known and it produces little waste.

“What makes the discovery even more compelling is the fact that the chemical reaction does not damage the catalyst, which can be reactivated by adding new substrate,” Fontaine says.

The only downside to the operation is the price tag.

“Our approach to creating methanol is highly effective from a chemistry standpoint, but for now the process is expensive,” Fontaine says. “It takes a lot of energy to synthesize hydroborane, which makes it more expensive than methanol.

“We are working on ways to make the process more profitable by optimizing the reaction and exploring other hydrogen sources.”