Student pioneers method for breaking down CO2

After three years and thousands of hours in the lab, Western Washington University graduate student Zach Thammavongsy’s research into breaking down carbon dioxide, one of the planet’s most plentiful greenhouse gases, into the more valuable carbon monoxide has just been published in the research journal “Inorganic Chemistry.”

Thammavongsy, a native of Belluevue and a graduate of Interlake High School, began the research when he was an undergraduate at Western and continued while he pursued his master’s degree at the Bellingham university.

“This is a big breakthrough,” Thammavongsy said. “Anything that we can do to lessen the impact of CO2 on our planet, however small it may seem at the time, is incredibly important. And to be able to work on research of this magnitude as an undergrad – it’s just been an amazing experience.”

Thammavongsy’s research involves using earth-abundant metals and elements such as iron and silicon to strip away carbon dioxide’s extra oxygen molecule, turning a greenhouse gas into a base material that can be used as a building block for fuels such as methanol.

“What Zach has done is basically trick these molecules into doing things they don’t normally do,” said Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Gilbertson, Thammavongsy’s research advisor and co-author of the study. “And the key here is the cost: He’s been able to do this using iron as his catalyst. Up until now, you’ve had to use exotic or toxic metals like niobium or uranium, which are incredibly expensive and make the process a non-starter on a large scale.”

“It’s just a little piece of a big puzzle, but this research makes a real contribution to science – and to society because of its potential impact on the environment. It’s tremendously exciting,” Gilbertson said.

Thammavongsy said he had no idea he would spend so much of his time as an undergrad working on such important research.

“That’s just the way it is at Western. Many of my friends in the department are also working on projects and have been for years, and the faculty work hard to make this kind of important independent research available for those students who want to take it on,” he said.

Another side benefit to his research has been a confirmation of what he wants his next steps in life to be.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, now – I want to make science my career, and getting this kind of research published helps enormously when applying to schools to get my doctorate,” he said.

Thammavongsy’s research can be seen in “Inorganic Chemistry,” a research journal of the American Chemistry Society. For more information on the research, contact John Gilbertson at