According to a study published in Science Advances, a team of researchers with the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning have discovered a way to transform copper into a new material with catalytic properties similar to gold.
To create the new material, the researchers shot a copper target with a jet of high temperature, electrically charged argon gas. The fast-moving ionized gas particles blasted copper atoms off the target. The atoms then coalesced onto the surface of a specialized collecting device to form a layer of sand-like matter with individual grains measuring only a few nanometers in diameter.
Using this material as a catalyst, the scientists were able convert carbon (as coal) into an alcohol at a level of efficiency similar to what could be achieved with a gold catalyst.
Compared to gold (or other precious metals), normal copper catalysts are inefficient to work with because they corrode too quickly. This is because copper atoms have fewer electrons in less stable arrangements compared to gold atoms. According to the study's lead researcher, Professor Sun Jian, the electrified argon gas "inject[s] a large amount of energy into copper atoms [to make] the electrons more dense and stable." This is what enables the resulting material to resist high temperatures, oxidization, and erosion at levels comparable to gold.
Although this form of modified copper may not totally replace gold, the researchers are hopeful that their discovery will significantly reduce the use of precious metals in industrial applications.