Do you have that feeling you’re looking for one thing and then something better comes along?
This is exactly what happened to scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, who were hoping to turn carbon dioxide into methanol only to discover, much to their surprise, they created ethanol instead.
To elaborate, researchers were expecting to see a volatile, flammable and poisonous liquid alcohol (ie, methanol) but instead they got a volatile and flammable liquid that is used as fuel as well as a biofuel additive (ie, ethanol).
So why is ethanol relevant?
As Dr Adam Rondinone, who was involved in the experiment, explains: “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.”
In simple terms, scientists have accidentally discovered a relatively easy way to reverse the combustion process by turning carbon dioxide back into a useful fuel.
Last month, we hit the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 in four million years, and we are now at the point of no return. So converting CO2 from the atmosphere into fuel is certainly welcome news.
For their research, scientists used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and an electric current was then used to trigger a complicated chemical reaction.
Then with the help of the catalyst, ethanol was produced after a solution of carbon dioxide was dissolved into water.
“We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked,” Rondinone said. “We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realised that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own.
“That means that of all the carbon dioxide and electricity going into it, you don’t waste much of it. The majority of it ends up converted into ethanol.”
Scientists believe the reason this worked was because of the catalyst’s nanoscale structure, which was made up of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon spikes and contained multiple reaction sites.
“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,” Rondinone said.
He suggests the process could be used not only for fossil fuel power plants but also renewable energy systems such as wind and solar plants and researchers are now working to find out more about the catalyst’s unique properties and improve its efficiency.
The research is published in ChemistrySelect.