When ethanol is burned, it reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, together with water and heat. This ultimately contributes to the Earth’s atmosphere as a greenhouse gas which warms the planet.
But it appears now that we don’t have to worry about ethanol’s combustion and its bad contribution to the environment, as scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have discovered that carbon dioxide can be converted directly into ethanol.
This essentially reverses the process. A chemical reaction was developed, out of serendipity, after the researchers were trying to convert carbon dioxide into a useful fuel. They noticed that the first step in their process was able to do it by itself, converting the greenhouse gas into ethanol. The lead author of the study, Adam Rondinone, was surprised to see that the catalyst they made was doing the entire reaction on its own.
Their catalyst was a novel design of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon spikes. When electric voltage was applied to carbon dioxide dissolved in water, reactions were triggered which yielded ethanol. The accidental discovery had a 63% yield recovery.
Rondinone said, “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.”
Especially that it works in room temperature and only requires low-cost materials, the technology, according to Rondinone, would allow you to consume extra electricity when it’s available to make and store as ethanol. He added, “This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.” Moreover, what this means in the macro is that it could help stop climate change.
Studies will be conducted to further develop this process and make it more efficient.