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The manufacture of many chemicals important to human health and comfort consumes fossil fuels, thereby contributing to extractive processes, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. A new approach employs sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into these needed chemicals, potentially reducing emissions in two ways: by using the unwanted gas as a raw material and sunlight, not fossil fuels, as the source of energy needed for production.

This process is becoming increasingly feasible thanks to advances in sunlight-activated catalysts, or photocatalysts. In recent years investigators have developed photocatalysts that break the resistant double bond between carbon and oxygen in carbon dioxide. This is a critical first step in creating “solar” refineries that produce useful compounds from the waste gas—including “platform” molecules that can serve as raw materials for the synthesis of such varied products as medicines, detergents, fertilizers and textiles.

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