How to reduce carbon levels using light

Close up of five glass tubes containing blue, yellow or green liquid during the photocatalyst development process.

New Iridium is developing photocatalysts from common elements.Credit: Courtesy of

New Iridium in Boulder, Colorado, spun off from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, in 2020.

Even as a teenager, Chern-Hooi Lim worried about the effects climate change would have on her generation. Now armed with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, Lim runs New Iridium, a company in Boulder, Colo., that he hopes can use the power of light to remove a significant portion of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from processes. chemical production, and even convert some of them into useful products.

As a doctoral student and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, Lim used a supercomputer to model how well various organic photocatalysts would absorb light and transfer electrons to stimulate particular chemical reactions. He took his findings to Garrett Miyake, an organic chemist at nearby Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who synthesized and tested them. Based on his results, they launched New Iridium, which has been shortlisted for The Spinoff Prize 2023; Lim is the executive director and Miyake is the technical director.

Conventionally, the chemical industry relies on methods such as steam cracking, in which petroleum hydrocarbons are mixed with steam and then rapidly heated to 850°C or higher. The process transforms the molecules into products like ethylene, which can then be used to make everything from absorbent diapers to smartphone screen protectors. The fuel burned to produce these high temperatures releases more than 2 billion tons of CO2 each year globally (for context, all vehicles in the United States combined emit about 1.5 billion tons a year). These methods use metals such as platinum, palladium, and ruthenium as catalysts. “They are very expensive, very rare, and in many cases toxic,” says Brent Cutliffe, co-founder and COO of New Iridium.

reduce emissions

Organic photocatalysts, by contrast, are made with common, safe elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. And using light, in this case blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), to drive the reactions opens up chemical pathways that don’t require high temperatures, Lim says, reducing both energy requirements and carbon emissions. The scale of the reduction depends in part on whether the electricity that powers the LEDs is produced using renewable sources rather than fossil fuels, but Lim and his colleagues believe their technology has the potential to cut industry emissions in half. . The company name comes from a promising photocatalyst metal: iridium. The least expensive organic version from the startup is called new iridium.

The team is working on two types of chemical reactions. One is the production of olefins, which would create ethylene, propylene and butylene, all used to make plastics. The other is to produce acetic acid, acrylic acid, methacrylic acid, and terephthalic acid. These go into a variety of products, from paint to the polymethyl methacrylate used in electronic displays. And because the equipment technology takes CO2 from industrial chimneys and makes long lasting products, it also removes some of the greenhouse gases from the heating equation.

Sue Sundstrom, a Clevedon, UK-based startup coach who is one of the 2023 Spinoff Prize judges, praises New Iridium’s focus on how to solve a problem rather than selling a scientific development. “It wasn’t about doing some research and then saying, how are we going to use this?” she says. “Everything was designed around the business application.”