Polluting Greenhouse Gas To Useful Fuel: Scientists Accidentally Discover Way To Convert Carbon Dioxide Directly To Ethanol Using A Single Catalyst

In a breakthrough in waste-to-fuel technology, scientists have discovered a new process that converts pollution-causing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gas directly into ethanol, a chemical that finds many uses in industries as a highly potent fuel.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) accidentally discovered a technology with the potential to avert, and perhaps even reverse, climate change caused by rising amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. If applied on a global scale, the technology not only can restore the delicate ecological balance that is being increasingly disturbed by polluting greenhouse gasses, but also offer an abundant and consistent supply of ethanol, a clean fuel with a water-like appearance that has myriad applications in many industries.

The technology is essentially a chemical reaction that turns CO2 into ethanol. The process relies on an electrochemical reaction that uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to transform CO2, a harmful and polluting greenhouse gas, into ethanol. Speaking about the accidental but monumental discovery, ORNL’s Adam Rondinone, who is the lead author of the team’s study, said,

“We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked … We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realized that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own.”

How did the team transform CO2 into ethanol? The scientists used a catalyst made of carbon, copper, and nitrogen, and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction, noted the ORNL website. Astonishingly, the reaction essentially reverses the combustion process, and consumes CO2 to give out liquid ethanol as a product, continued Rondinone.

“We’re taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we’re pushing that combustion reaction backwards with very high selectivity to a useful fuel”

To help the process chug along, the nanotechnology-based catalyst is used in a mixture of carbon dioxide and water. Owing to exceptionally nano size of particles, the catalysts has millions of minuscule reaction sites that actively turn the CO2 and water mixture into ethanol. Surprisingly, the process can offer a yield of 63 percent.

Under normal circumstances, such a reaction would result in the formation of several different products in small quantities. However, a majority of the products are of no practical use and certainly can’t be used as a viable and potent fuel source. The beauty of the newly discovered process is that a single catalyst does all the work of conversion, and offers a potent fuel as a byproduct, added Rondinone.

“Ethanol was a surprise — it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst.”

In the previous experiments, scientists had to rely on expensive or rare metals such as platinum to produce similar results. Needless to say, using such materials completely erodes economic viability of the process. Researchers were able to produce copious amounts of ethanol using commonly available materials. The only difference was the nanoscale structure that depends on the copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon spikes, shared Rondinone,

“By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want.”

The secret to the process lies in the ample surface area offered by the nanoscale and spiked surface of the catalyst. The catalyst offers several reaction sites simultaneously. While each reaction site is very small, together they facilitate rapid conversion of CO2 to ethanol. Surprisingly, the reaction takes place at room temperature, and the equipment isn’t expensive to procure or assemble.

Solar, tidal, geothermal, and other eco-friendly energy sources are being actively considered by power generating companies. However, techniques that can potentially scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses like CO2, and deliver useful fuel like ethanol, certainly offer new opportunities to arrest pollution and address global warming.

[Featured Image by Simon Willms/Getty Images]