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Leon Kaye headshot

Scientists Accidentally Discover a Way to Convert CO2 Into Ethanol

By Leon Kaye

What if scientists could find a way to mitigate climate change risks by developing fuel from carbon dioxide?

It sounds like yet another clean technology pipe dream. But researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) near Knoxville, Tennessee, say they stumbled into a chemical process that could reshape the clean energy landscape, if it can scale outside the lab.

According to a study co-written by almost a dozen ORNL researchers, they were studying nanofabrication and catalysis science reactions when they came upon a most “serendipitous” discovery. While they were applying voltage to a catalyst comprised of carbon, copper and nitrogen, they found that it caused a solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water to transform into a liquid with a 63 percent yield of ethanol. In the past, similar research at ORNL resulted in several different compounds in tiny amounts. But these carbon “nanospikes” and sphere-shaped copper nanoparticles work seamlessly to convert carbon dioxide into an easily distilled fuel.

Past studies at ONRL found that a blend of different catalysts would result in the creation of ethanol, but they included the use of rare and expensive metals such as platinum – a process that would never become economically viable. The relatively cost-effective mix of copper, nitrogen and carbon, however, could show promise outside of the laboratory.

If this technology can scale, it could help null the argument that solar and wind power, despite their decreasing costs and increasing efficiency, are not entirely dependable sources of energy. Advocates of both renewable technologies have long said battery storage can solve the problems that occur when a solar installation or wind turbine produces more energy than the local grid currently requires. Instead, says the ORNL research team, that excess electricity could be transformed into ethanol, which in turn could be used to fuel vehicles and power electricity turbines.

Furthermore, ORNL’s scientists say this carbon dioxide conversion technology works at room temperature, an important development as it would result in low energy costs and could begin and end easily with few technical glitches. The outcome would be a far more efficient process than generating fuel from sources such as hydrogen, a process critics have long argued is expensive and inefficient.

Finally, such technology used at a wide scale would have less environmental impact than battery storage. Tesla, for example, insists the scaling-up of battery technology can benefit consumers, businesses and utilities. But despite advances in battery efficiency, they still require massive amounts of rare earth metals, some of which are described as “conflict minerals,” that wreak their own environmental and social havoc. So, while we're still far from finding that energy game-changer, this accidental discovery is one that is definitely encouraging.

Image credit: ORNL

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye