Scientists have developed a way to turn the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into ethanol fuel in an accidental discovery that has become an important breakthrough for renewable energy.
The discovery by a team at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was made in 2014. Scientists have since replicated the process numerous times in the nanotechnology lab, CBS News reports.
Adam Rondinone, lead study author, says their finding was a stroke of luck. They were testing a different chemical reaction at the time. They used a catalyst composed of carbon, copper and nitrogen, and applied electricity to trigger an intricate chemical reaction that reversed the combustion process. The carbon dioxide solution, with the help of the catalyst and water dissolution, became ethanol.
It was a big surprise, Rondinone says, as it’s highly unlikely that carbon dioxide will turn into ethanol with just one catalyst. He explains,
The way Mother Nature typically works is the simplest, easiest reaction to occur is the one that’s most likely to occur, and the heavier molecule is not favorable. It’s an unexpected result.
The implications of the study open up a whole new field in renewable energy. The process makes use of inexpensive materials and occurs at room temperature in water, meaning it can potentially be scaled up for industrial purposes. For example, the process could make the electric grid more sustainable by allowing it to store excess energy generated from renewable sources like wind and solar.
Since a power grid is constantly balancing energy input and output, it cannot store energy at the moment, limiting the amount of electricity it can produce. This new method could change that in a big way.
Rondinone says he hopes other scientists can use their results and expand on it in bigger ways, as their team focuses on small experiments to figure out specific methods.
The study was published in ChemistrySelect.