Researchers Just Found a Way to Convert CO2 into Ethanol Fuel, Completely by Accident

By Tom Pritchard on at

The best science happens by accident. Like penicillin, the microwave, velcro, and so on. Now there's been another potentially world-changing event discovered by pure chance: a method of easily (and cheaply) turning carbon dioxide into ethanol fuel.

Scientists from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory discovered the process, which requires nitrogen, applied voltage, and spikes of carbon embedded with copper nanoparticles. The team was in what they thought would be the first of many steps needed to convert CO2 into methanol, before discovering it was converting he gas into ethanol by itself.

The conversion process essentially reverses the effects of combustion, with the nanotech catalyst forcing the carbon dioxide to dissolve in water and transform into ethanol. The reaction produces small amounts of several products, but the yield of ethanol was 63-65 per cent. That's a good, since it means there isn't much wastage.

The most important aspect of this new conversion processes is that the required materials are cheap (with no rare metals involved at any point), and the whole reaction can take place at room temperature. The researchers aim to continue studying the properties and behaviour of the catalyst, and believe that it could be scaled up for industrial applications.

Presumably, should this method of fuel production prove to be commercially effective, it's not going to stop carbon emissions. Burning ethanol does produce CO2 as a byproduct, but if it's created using atmospheric CO2 in the first place then the emissions should get cancelled out.

The only question is where the fuel will be used. Cars are the obvious choice, but it's going to take time for other scientists and researchers to go over the findings and see if they can replicate the results. Then it's a case of implementing it on an industrial scale, which takes time and money. Energy production is another option, but then you have to consider efficiency and whether it would actually be a worthwhile substitute to fossil fuels.

Thankfully the cost and required conditions are pretty reasonable, so fingers crossed. [ORNL via Slashgear]