Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, working with scientists at the University of Northern Illinois, have discovered a new catalyst that converts carbon dioxide and water into ethanol, which they say is “very energy efficient, highly selective and low-cost for the end product scant,”media new Atlas reported.
The catalyst is made from atomicly dispersed copper ontoastands and acts as an electric catalyst that is in a low-voltage electric field when water and carbon dioxide pass through it. The reaction breaks down these molecules and then selectively rearranges them into ethanol, where they are electrocatalyticly selective or “Faraday efficiency” above 90%. The team said it was “much more than any other reported process.”
Once produced, ethanol can be used as a fuel additive or as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Using it as a fuel would be an example of the “recycled carbon economy”, which would facilitate the reuse of carbon dioxide. If the process is driven by renewable energy, the researchers say, it can be done because of its low temperature, low-pressure operation and responsiveness to intermittent power supplies.
At this stage, it is not known what the cost will be. There are already synthetic fuels that use catalyzing carbon dioxide; Carbon Engineering, for example, is a company that extracts carbon dioxide from air to make synthetic crude oil, which can be refined into high-purity aviation fuels.
Such synthetic fuels need to compete with ordinary fossil gasoline at price, so it’s hard to put it on the spectrum between “unused clean results” and “environmentally significant discoveries” without knowing how the Argonne team’s carbon-capture ethanol competes with bioethanol and other sources.
The paper is published in Nature Energy.