Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have accidentally discovered a potentially profitable means of converting carbon dioxide into ethanol. The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. According to lead author Adam Rondinon:
“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. Ethanol was a surprise – it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst.
“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.”
Because the process uses low-cost materials and works at room temperature, the researchers believe that it could be scaled up to an industrial scale and used as a means of storing energy generated from renewable sources. Ethanol could be produced using excess renewable energy and then used to fuel generators in periods of insufficient energy.