There’s a potentially monumental breakthrough in energy technology in the news. In a surprising development, researchers at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have turned carbon dioxide, the green house gas driving climate change, into ethanol, a useful fuel and chemical compound. What’s most exciting of all, the room temperature process appears to be quick, efficient, and economical, with yields of ethanol between 63 and 70 per cent.
The researchers used a wafer adapted with nanotechnology, using otherwise ordinary materials, to catalyze the reaction, to produce pure ethanol from CO2. They originally planned to make a catalyst based on graphene, which is a very interesting material made from a single layer of carbon just one atom thick. But they ended up making, for practical reasons, a wafer studded with tiny “nano spikes” culminating in points just a few atoms wide. The tips of these spikes can concentrate an electrical charge, where the desired chemical reaction, which includes a tiny droplet of nitrogen, takes place. They originally expected to produce methanol, but their wafer yielded its even more useful chemical cousin, ethanol.
So how might this help humanity? This technology could remove extra carbon dioxide from the air, where its excessive build-up is causing climate change due to the well-documented green house effect. In addition, and even more exciting, this method could be used as a storage mechanism for a completely renewable energy system, supplying the grid with power even when the sun doesn’t shine on solar panels, and the wind doesn’t blow across wind turbines.
During up times, when there’s ample renewable energy available, the system would generate extra electricity, above and beyond the needs of the electrical grid, and use this catalytic process to create ethanol. Then during down times, like at night, or when the winds aren’t blowing, the ethanol could fuel old-fashioned generators producing electricity to dump back into the grid.
This storage issue has been a major problem with scaling up alternative energy resources, so a cheap, efficient ethanol solution would be very workable. And creating ethanol in this manner, right from existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would be a carbon neutral solution, unlike burning fossil fuels, which dumps enormous quantities of new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And let’s not forget that the internal combustion engines used in cars and trucks can also run on ethanol, so the possibilities are wide open for inserting this method into the energy economy.
Photo: By Tony Webster from San Francisco, California (J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons