Scientists Accidentally Turned Pollution into Fuel

By Powell, Ellen | The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

Scientists Accidentally Turned Pollution into Fuel


Powell, Ellen, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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