Scientists – by accident – turn carbon dioxide into ethanol fuel

Researchers have stumbled upon a way to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol, using spikey nanoparticles.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
An ethanol plant stands next to a cornfield near Nevada, Iowa. Researchers have developed an electrochemical process to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol.

The microwave. Safety glass. Sweet’N Low. These are just a few of the accidental inventions that have changed the world, in small ways and big. Now, a new discovery may join them.

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab in Tennessee, have discovered a mechanism for converting carbon dioxide into ethanol. Their method takes advantage of nanotechnology, creating a catalyst that produces ethanol from a solution of carbon dioxide in water.

“We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked,” said Adam Rondinone, the lead author of a new study in the journal ChemistrySelect. “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.”

The discovery may change the way we think about carbon dioxide. If it could be captured and turned into a fuel, then carbon dioxide – the earth-polluting byproduct of global dependence on fossil fuels – could help high-energy societies work toward energy independence. The process would also allow renewable energy to be stored as ethanol, creating greater certainty about supply, the researchers say.

“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,” said Dr. Rondinone.

Researchers have attempted to convert carbon dioxide into useful substances before, primarily using metal-based catalysts like copper, platinum, silver, and gold. But competing reactions have meant that very little of any one product is generated.

By using nanotechnology, Rondinone and his colleagues could limit the side reactions and get more ethanol. They embedded copper nanoparticles in carbon spikes, providing a large surface on which for the reaction to occur. And the catalyst works without rare and expensive materials: only tiny amounts of copper were needed.

Another benefit to this technology: it can operate at room temperature and in water. All of this means that it could prove economically viable on a larger scale.

Repurposing carbon dioxide could be invaluable for the environment, the researchers say. Converting it into ethanol can turn a greenhouse gas into a gasoline-like fuel source. Ethanol contains one-third less energy than gasoline but produces far fewer byproducts when burned in engines, which can limit further carbon emissions.

“Closing the carbon cycle by utilizing CO2 as a feedstock for currently used commodities, in order to displace a fossil feedstock, is an appropriate intermediate step towards a carbon-free future,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Ethanol is already used in cars and trucks as an additive to gasoline. Most US gas contains up to 10 percent ethanol, while flex fuel vehicles can use mixes with up to 83 percent ethanol. Wider availability of ethanol could see a rise in vehicles able to use the fuel – particularly if an efficient conversion process makes it a better economic bet than gasoline.

The researchers also hope that ethanol conversion processes could provide an answer to a problem plaguing renewable energy production: how to store the energy for later use. 

“A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it’s available to make and store as ethanol,” Rondinone said. “This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.” 

Ethanol has higher fuel density than existing batteries, meaning that more energy could be stored in a smaller space – such as on a home rooftop covered in solar cells.

This may not be the perfect catalyst to revolutionize energy production and storage, the researchers concluded in their study, but the use of nanotechnology to focus on ethanol production is a step in the right direction. They will continue to investigate the process to develop their understanding of the reaction and improve its efficiency.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Scientists – by accident – turn carbon dioxide into ethanol fuel
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today