Self-driving labs for gold-powered electrofuels

- Mississauga, Ontario

About 80% of the world's gold bullion goes into the bars and coins held in vaults and safes, or the glittering jewellery we see lining store shelves. The metal is also used in electronics, dentistry, medicine and aerospace. But at the nano scale, elemental gold is a chemical that is very different from the metal—and has proven to be one of the most effective catalysts for production of synthetic fuels from carbon dioxide (CO2).

This is good news in the race to convert CO2 into clean fuels. The main difficulty has been to find a plentiful, highly active catalyst that produces pure products. "Recent studies have shown that elemental gold is the most selective and efficient material for use in these catalysts," says John Mulligan, Climate Change Lead at the World Gold Council (WGC). The next steps are to discover new gold-based catalysts that convert CO2 into fuels, then scale up and commercialize them.

It typically takes 30 to 50 years to go from invention to market. "With climate change gaining ground quickly, time is not on our side," adds Mulligan. "So we knew we had to greatly speed up product research and development." He points out that the WGC has a long history of identifying strategic solutions and supporting advanced technologies. Coupled with the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) international reputation for innovation, this made an ideal partnership for accelerating progress.

The WGC and the NRC are now collaborating in the NRC's advanced materials research facility in Mississauga, Ontario, where they are utilizing a new paradigm for experimentation: accelerating materials discovery using self-driving laboratories. According to the NRC's project leads Dr. Robert Black and Dr. Parisa Karimi, these AI-controlled "autonomous researchers" can increase experimentation throughput by 10 to 100 times over traditional methods.

By the end of this 3‑year project, the outcomes will not only deliver catalysts, but also demonstrate that these cutting-edge experimental technologies, techniques and tools can accelerate climate change solutions. Dr. Black adds "While the initial focus is on gold, the project will help us develop capabilities that we can share with other industry partners and collaborators." As per Dr. Karimi, "inefficient usage of scarce gold element prohibits its widespread application in clean energy, and our goal is to discover optimized material to increase gold utilization hundredfold over existing nanoparticles."

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