Discovery: C02 Can Be Turned Into Ethanol Using Common Materials

220px-oak_ridge_national_laboratory_logo-svgIn a discovery that should have been the lead story on most networks this week, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have discovered an incredible chemical reaction that not only turns CO2 into ethanol but does so with few contaminants and using common materials. It could prove a critical means for combatting climate change. For those who resist new pollution curbs, this type of technology is the type of advance that should warrant bipartisan support.

The discovery of chemical reactions that could turn CO2 into a useful fuel is a huge development. The resulting ethanol could be used to power generators and vehicles. The discovery was unexpected and uses a new combination of copper and carbon arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. Even better, this can be done at room temperature.

So once again, why has this not generated more attention? It would seem precisely the type of technological effort that will have to be part of a comprehensive approach to climate change. This obviously will not be a golden bullet and is in the early stages of research. However, it is a promising development in what will have to be a myriad of approaches in the area.

Source: Popular Mechanics

61 thoughts on “Discovery: C02 Can Be Turned Into Ethanol Using Common Materials”

  1. I’ve been sifting through all these comments, and only hinkydinkkenna commented on the fundamental physics of the headline claims.
    Yes, you can turn CO2 into C2H6O if you add hydrogen, but it will also take an addition of energy to do so.

    So, this is not anything magical — basically it says you can turn your energy source into ethanol, using hydrogen and carbon dioxide as feedstocks.
    But you still have to have a source of available energy.

    1. Gary –
      Let’s not let basic physical and chemical principles get in the way of a spirited and opinionated debate !

  2. I just invented a carburetor that gets 500 miles to the gallon. But, the system is keeping me from marketing it. Next week I’m going to invent an engine that runs on sh*t. You just plug your car into the bathrooms and in the morning you’re off and running, smelling sweet.

  3. Some years ago scientists announced they had successfully turned coal into diamond in the laboratory. This was followed by a flood of articles detailing haw industrial diamonds would now be manufactured by this process at a fraction of the cost of natural diamonds, and the cost of processes requiring industrial diamonds would plummet. We all know how that turned out, and similar stories are in the thousands, including fuels manufactured from seaweed and electricity created from boxes the size of refrigerators.

  4. Before we get too excited about this, consider the source of the report was Popular Mechanics, which based its article on an academic publication. The underlying academic paper identifies the conversion of carbon dioxide, a single carbon molecule (CO2) containing two oxygen atoms, to ethanol, a two carbon molecule containing one oxygen atom. The chemical process used is electrochemical reduction over a specific catalyst. In electrochemical reduction, energy is “added” to the system using electricity. In other words, it takes electrical energy to make possible the conversion of carbon dioxide to ethanol. There is conservation of energy in that burning ethanol to CO2 creates heat energy and going the other way to transform CO2 to ethanol requires added energy.
    The paper concludes that the amount of required electrical energy “probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst…”
    Thus, you cannot burn ethanol in an automobile and then recycle CO2 back to ethanol without adding energy. There is no free lunch.
    The point of the academic paper is that the researchers found a catalyst that can transform CO2 to ethanol without creating many other molecules as has been observed in other electrochemical reductions of CO2.
    There is a long-standing industrial problem in converting a single carbon molecule such as methane, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide to multi-carbon molecules. The Germans in WWII developed a process to convert coal (i.e. carbon) to liquid fuel by partially burning coal to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen and then passing this mixture over a catalyst to form multi-carbon liquid molecules useful to run tanks. The technology was further developed by apartheid South Africa, which could not buy petroleum on the world market. There has been more recent research to convert natural gas (methane) to liquid fuels. This would be important where gas could not be transported to market economically.

    1. Yes, CO2 and sunlight as food. Love it. Plants have it all figured out. Been trying to do that for years myself to cut back on the ever-increasing grocery bill. Maybe we can elect a suitable plant as President.

      1. “Maybe we can elect a suitable plant as President.”

        Are we?

        A geranium would be better than the choices we have.

  5. Professor
    I think right now the whole world is watching the Donald Trump show in horror, unable to believe that Americans nominated this malignant narcissist to run for the highest office in the land.
    Rest assured. Mrs Clinton not only understands the science of global climate change, she supports doing something about it. I have no doubt that after she wins the election and Trump gets the mental health treatment he so desperately needs that we will pursue this and other promising ideas to deal with Climate change.

    1. I don’t know where you get your information, but the whole world is watching in horror and fear at the possibility of the CLINTON being at the reins of the world’s imperial army.

      If memory serves me right, Mrs. Clinton was the big supporter of fracking in NY. Don’t know how that makes her a champion of the environment.

    2. I think right now the whole world is watching

      A matter of no interest to anyone who isn’t pathologically other-directed (as well given to dim-witted nonsense about what interests foreigners).

    3. Yep, HRC is all about fracking – pushed it to other nations during her SoS tenure. Fracking causes earthquakes and destroys water supplies. She is a fraud.

  6. “successfully controls the government”

    I would add “colludes with the government.” As we have seen, these actors have become part of the government through the revolving door, so there isn’t really any difference between these organizations and the government. Banks, military contractors; it’s all the same.

    “OK, let’s hear about deleted emails and sexual forays. The boys in the penthouses are laughing their heads off when a new scandal breaks and takes the focus off of them.”

    Indeed, we have had the opportunity for the light of day to be cast on this whole system, and there are those who choose not to investigate out of adherence to a self-identified ideal. This may be the ultimate reason why we are in the state we are in.

  7. The determining issue is the status quo. The oligarchs sucking at the teats of oil, gas, coal, etc don’t want to or can’t morph into alternative energy because their revenue sources would be diminished. It is just that simple. It is the way of the corporate oligarchical system under which we live. For a clearly illustrated example revisit the history of tobacco. Sixty years ago cigarettes were advertised by doctors and athletes as being healthy, an aid to digestion, a release from anxiety, etc. The corporate oligarchs and their elected puppets fought tooth and nail for decades to maintain their mouth at the teat. The same is true consistently throughout our so called free society. Those who abhor the controls by government seem to miss the end run the corporate oligarchs are doing, using the government, buying the government, with money extracted from the dupes, us. The problem is clear and there are democracies in the world that do a better job. The US is the last democracy with two parties, one more than a dictatorship. The US is the only country where the pharmaceutical industry spends over 20% on advertising but less than 16% on research and development and successfully controls the government restricting the government’s ability to bargain for lower prices for its citizens, a right afforded by the US and all pharmaceutical companies to other countries. The problem is not Clinton or Trump but the American perverted illusion of freedom and rights. When a Supreme Court Judge/Scalia can determine that a multi billion dollar corporation has the same rights as an individual and can contribute hundreds of millions to buy and control our elected representatives, we have a problem. It’s not simply shameful, and treasonous; it is plain stupid.

    OK, let’s hear about deleted emails and sexual forays. The boys in the penthouses are laughing their heads off when a new scandal breaks and takes the focus off of them.

    1. Your hypothesis has many holes or flaws in it. True there might be resistance of companies to do a paradigm shift, but there are plenty of examples that counter your thoughts. If what you said were true, we would still be riding around in horse carriages. We would still be using Rockefeller kerosene instead of electricity to light our homes. Do you really think Rockefeller had no influence? What about camera technology? Why didn’t Kodak destroy digital photography? Your diatribe is the easy way out of having to admit that most renewable energy other than hydro isn’t viable. If it was, there would be nothing holding it back just like my stated examples. I know the idea of discrimination and free market scare the hell out of you, but they are what moves us forward, not the govt. After Ol’ Henry Ford is the one who made 40 hour work weeks at $5/day on his own!

  8. I was hoping that someone had discovered a reaction to easily turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into Diet Dr. Pepper…..

  9. What “fuels the military” are old John Wayne movies showing the glory of war and the glory of men who get good looking women. And they all smoke. Kids watch the movies, grow up to age 18, join the Army, still smoking, and their parents then support, as always, the M.I.C. Generation after generation. Went in dumb. Come out dumb too. Someone above yakked about fueling the military.

  10. This discovery has not generated more attention because if this, or like systems, remediate the CO2 problem-assuming there is a man made one, then there is nothing for governments to tax and with a solution in hand research funding dries up.

  11. Ethanol is a solution for the need for liquid fuel in the face of an oil shortage.

    It is not necessarily a solution for emissions related to global warming.

    From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

    “The lifecycle emissions of ethanol—from seed to tailpipe—depend on how the ethanol is made and what it is made from. The best ethanol can produce as much as 90 percent fewer lifecycle emissions compared to gasoline, but the worst ethanol can produce significantly more lifecycle emissions than gasoline.”

    This is not the first time we have read reports of efficient methods to produce ethanol. It will be interesting to see if this method actually makes it to commercial production. I would not invest my 401(K) yet.

  12. There are many who rightfully question the value of adding ethanol to gasoline, viz. E85. Succinctly, the pollution factor savings from the tailpipe is negated by the farming resources to produce the ethanol. Plus, pure ethanol only possesses 66% of the energy density of pure gasoline, therefore mileage is reduced and engine wear can be a factor in some designs. E85 has on 72% of the energy density, I believe.

    The tradeoff means that despite inefficiencies in the use of ethanol, if the sourcing of the ethanol is exceptional, the efficiency can actually become meaningless if the means to produce methanol from the air or some other usable source efficiency matters more with capital costs of the equipment and not as much with the device to consume it.

    1. Unfortunately, ethanol is very corrosive in automotive fuel systems, attacking gaskets, hoses and even metal parts in time. Older cars especially are susceptible to this.

    2. I made note of the interest in this and pointed out a role of a thorium molten salt reactor, but it appears my comment may have been spammed because of a URL?

      1. I am a big fan of LFTR! JT should really be doing an article on why we are not investigating that more. The whole history of nuclear reactor is an interesting read. But people like Saurab, would rather listen to a movie made by Jane Fonda.

      2. There was a company researching Thorium reactors for use in a car. I talked with the CEO a few years back about it. Very interesting stuff. The real paradigm shift is thinking about your car as a power plant that you would plug your house into vs. plugging your car into your house.

  13. I am curious if such a device can be scaled downward to make it possible to equip a ethanol powered car with such a device. That way, as the ethanol burns, its CO2waste recirculates back to the converter; serving as an additional fuel. No, I’m not suggesting the possibility of a perpetual motion machine, but rather pollution reduction.

    During the early part of the 20th century some engine designs incorporated exhaust recirculation via compound engines. The simplest model consisted of two smaller primary cylinders venting exhaust through the intakes of a larger common piston for additional power. These did unfortunately create as great a savings as could be imagined and especially since more efficient simple engines were more marketable. Yet, perhaps this CO2 recirculation device might involve different physics.

    Still, a milestone breakthrough

  14. I think this should be a background tech that should be employed without too much publicity. If this is publicized and goes viral, it could breed complacency and people will think climate change is not a problem anymore. That’s not we want.
    We need to change our ways and change them fast. Such technologies can buy us some time, that’s all. The focus everywhere should be on reducing emissions and environmental degradation.

    1. “If this is publicized and goes viral, it could breed complacency and people will think climate change is not a problem anymore. That’s not we want.”

      And there you have the progressive’s definition of transparency: The agenda drives the narrative. Of course we cannot give the people all the facts because they are too stupid to know what to do with them. An informed voter is a dangerous voter, right? What’s the NYT’s motto: “All the news that’s fit to print”? Your government operates the same way with “fit” being Need to Know.

      1. No no, that is not what I meant. If this technology is publicized as a “solution” to climate change, there’s a good chance that this will happen.
        From my experience of reading comments on climate related articles, yes I think it will breed complacency. I don’t like it, but sadly, it is the truth.
        Either we need to explain this in detail to the layman audience (something that many would find too tedious) or else, keep it in the background, or else suggest this method as a way to only reduce effects of climate change.

        1. “An informed voter is not a dangerous voter, a misinformed voter definitely is.”

          Again Saurab, you’re desire is to tell them WHAT to think rather than accepting the fact they have the capacity to can think for themselves. This manifests itself in your first comment, “…people will think climate change is not a problem anymore. That’s not we want.”

          If they are unconvinced manmade climate change is actually a phenomenon, that is not the equivalent of being “misinformed” any more than you being convinced it is. That’s called holding opposing views and no critical-thinking individual would discourage the free-flow of information that leads to an informed debate. If your “we” loses that debate, then the reasonable and responsible course of action is to put together a better argument, not shut off the flow of information with which critical-thinking people need to form rational conclusions.

          1. Hmm.
            Ok, I understand what you are saying.
            The reason I have this opinion though is that people ARE misinformed about basic scientific facts. There are a decent number of people who think climate change is not true because their locality is getting colder. Doesn’t that count as insufficient/mis-information?
            I don’t want to tell them what to think. I want them to understand basic science before they make their opinion.
            If people are unconviced of climate change after they know all the arguments FOR climate change, I will certainly not mind. If they refuse to hear arguments in favor of climate change, and make up opinions based on what little they have heard from here and there, then I do have a problem.

            I guess the way to deal with this is to give information about everything backed with solid background.

            1. How do you know “they” are the one’s misinformed? Because they haven’t formed the same conclusion you have? You are refusing to accept there is an alternative opinion to each side of your comments. For instance, “There are a decent number of people who think climate change is true because their locality is getting warmer. Doesn’t that count as insufficient/mis-information?” Or, “If people are convinced of climate change after they know all the arguments AGAINST climate change, I will certainly not mind. If they refuse to hear arguments AGAINST climate change, and make up opinions based on what little they have heard from here and there, then I do have a problem.”

              In the meantime, should we accept government confiscating private property through additional taxation to redistribute those funds to a global initiative without a scientific consensus that man-made climate change is a)real and b)effective and c)participated equally across the globe?

              I’ll tell you what: Make it a global capital offense for ANYONE to profit 1 dollar, Euro, etc.from this enterprise and you will quickly have the support of those currently opposed and just as quickly those in support will move on to the next scheme.

              1. If I start to question that most of the science I know, my whole life will be a lie 😛
                No, I am saying they are misinformed because of the arguments they give to support their stand, not because they have an alternative opinion. I completely agree that there can be an alternative opinion to whatever I think (like this comment chain, for example). I am also not rigid in my opinions, I’m open to accepting I’m wrong.

                I haven’t come across governments confiscating private property for global initiatives. Do they do this to fund climate change initiatives or their own pockets?

                Also, are you implying that people who support climate change are in it for profit? (I didn’t understand the last bit).

                1. Taxes in their previous form were the property (money) of the people that paid them. Technically it’s still my money but I have very little say in how it is spent. If I am forced to pay more taxes to finance government programs that I don’t agree with, then I perceive that as false philanthropy. Frederic Bastiat would classify that as “Legal Plunder”.

                  I accept we may have differing worldviews when it comes to the purpose for government. I understand human nature. The risk of self-governance lies in the character of the people provided the power to govern. Left to their own devices (and their performance proves this out), there is essentially ZERO oversight from the citizens of this country; they (political class) will conceive of the most dastardly plans to keep power and line their own pockets.

                  There are many reasons people support climate change. If one believes this much energy (no pun intended) would be expended to push this agenda without the quid pro quo of financial gain, then they are being naive. And to not inquire (follow the money) is pure willful ignorance.

                  1. That is an interesting point you have raised. Climate change, if not yet, could soon become a tool that the government could harness for their gains.
                    However, at the moment I don’t think that is true because most climate change activists are attacking oil as a big cause of climate change. THAT’S what is running the world right now, and from what I have heard, governments are trying vehemently to show that they are “doing something” to combat climate change, rather than actually doing something because that will destroy the fabrics of their economies.

  15. It fails the useful test in that it doesn’t help the Progressives keep control of the population through their food and fuel supplies. If it can be shown to do that might stand a chance. But they will ask why change a sure thing for a maybe.

  16. If there was real an issue with climate change using the scam of ethanol wouldn’t matter no matter how produced.

    The answer is not in destroying car engines with a heavily subsidized product whose main purpose was to jack up the price people and animal foods and with the housing bubble scam start an economic cycle of economic repression. Im the end that’s what happened and the people paying the price are the elderly and retired.

    Inflation equals devaluation and it’s paid for by debt repudiation. The target retirement fund buying power which conveniently is not included in the COLA computation.

    The progressives view the old folks as the most expensive to maintain with the least chance of being gainfully meaning tax paying employed., The faster we die the better they like it.

    Think not? What’s it going to take to make your wealth sufficient to be bullet proof. There’s only so much room for so many Bill and Melindas.

    Next cycle is coming up the Obama Debt has to be paid for . How much can grandpa and grandma afford to lose this time? It’s the only target that can’t or won’t fight back.

    Fascism at it’s best. with Broom Hilda at the controls.

    Do you hate your grandparents that much?

    The proof that stupidity is a disease cured only by death is this. The progressives turn is coming along with everyone elses. Tick Tick Tick.

    Did iyou ever stop to think when the hearse rolls by that you are going to be the next to die?

    How much ObamaCare can you afford?

    1. The “Obama debt” — or the Bush debt, or even the Eisenhower debt — NEVER has to be paid for. Not in ten years, or a hundred, or a million. Federal debt can always be rolled over, as it has been for decades. There is no requirement that the Federal debt be paid back on any particular schedule. And the government controls the interest rate it has to pay, to service that debt. Despite the supposed horrors of “printing money,” inflation remains very low. Federal debt is fundamentally unlike personal debt, or corporate debt, or even state government debt.

      I prefer to think of the Federal debt as more like dividend-paying shares of stock in the USA.

      1. Yes and no. The debt is issued with a due date, either 30 days, or 1 year, or 5, or 10years, whatever. The debt can be rolled over as long as there is someone to buy the old debt, or the new debt which pays off the old debt.

        One problem arises when interest rates go up. If interest hits 5%, then $20 trillion requires $1 trillion annual interest payments instead of the $400ish billion or so currently. If the U.S. tries to offer debt with 2%, when 5% is the going rate, then fat chance of selling debt at anything other than a steep discount. Which means you could get $8,000 today, but have to pay back $10,000 at redemption.

        Other problems are that the REAL debt is probably around $100 trillion, not $20 trillion because of unfunded liabilities. Plus, the existence of the debt sops up money that could be put to productive use. For example, we might borrow $1 trillion this year to pay women to produce illegitimate babies, instead of paying men to rebuild the infrastructure. Then, we have to compete with other countries that do not have those built in societal costs. Which is why many jobs go overseas currently. What would you rather pay in your factory, $30,000 a year to a sassy, lazy black woman with an attitude who you can’t fire without getting sued, or $10,000 to a hardworking woman in Vietnam, who is grateful for the job?

        Now, at some point, the gov’t will have to stop the Federal Reserve System, and just print its own money instead of borrowing it into existence. That will not necessarily be fatal, but it will certainly be interesting.


        Squeeky Fromm
        Girl Reporter

        1. Squeeky
          – If we were in a “normalized” interest rate environment, the annual deficits would be about $400 Billion higher.
          There’s a lot of discussion about various factors that might influence the Fed to raise rates- but the huge savings to the federal gvt. in servicing a $20 Trillion debt is usually not covered as a factor by the “experts” who speculate about the Fed’s next move.
          They’ve been playing the “when will the Fed raise interest rate” game for 7-8 years now.
          Japan’s central bank has kept rates artificially depressed for 25 years, and most countries have followed suit since 2008.
          The ultimate consequences of this “race to the bottom” interest rate game remain to be seen, and there are no real historical precedents or guidelines for this.
          My best guess is that the Fed will not allow a return to normalized interest rates for decades, primarily because of the historically large government debt that has to be serviced.

  17. In the liquefaction of coal they have been working on the CO2 problem for years and this discovery would solve that problem The liquefaction of coal produces gasoline which the Germans used in WWll and So Africa still uses today. I’ve long proposed that liquefaction could fuel all of our military.

    1. My father always talked about that. He was a WWII and they were always fascinated by that. Figured it just didn’t happen here because of plentiful cheap oil and the existing infrastructure.

  18. Ummm…but during combustion, ethanol turns into H20 and CO2 (water and carbon dioxide).

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