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Breakthrough: Turning Carbon Dioxide into Ethanol

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

It is not common knowledge that alternative fuels for vehicles has been around since the early 20th Century. In New York City, there are still existent city plans that market recharging stations for electric cars. In fact there were more recharging stations that gasoline stations at one point. But the power of gasoline engines proved more versatile then as compared to electric vehicles because technology for electric vehicles were still nascent then unlike today.

It is the same with ethanol powered vehicles. I the American farmbelt of the Mid-West, it is not unusual to find farm machinery and vehicles powered by ethanol. Ethanol was sourced from a resource that was ubiquitous in those areas and cheaper too. They got ethanol from corn which was the and still now widely planted in those areas. Again, the technology for mass manufacture was the most efficient and cheaper for fossil fuel products.

The development of vehicles thus became dominated by gasoline and diesel fuels. And it remained so for more than 50 years until 2 shocks happened. The 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1979 Oil Shock. These resulted into the re-opening of research and development for alternative fuels for vehicles and machinery. 

Ethanol has managed to regain widespread use after these events, but the sources of ethanol are also the sources of the food staples for a greater number of the world’s populations and even feedstock. Thus, demand will soon make ethanol on par with gasoline and diesel fuels. What was needed is an alternative source of ethanol.

This soon took a turn when scientists made a mistake and created ethanol from carbon dioxide. The scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (developers and makers of nuclear weapons) made the breakthrough in alternative fuels.

The scientists had already conducted studies on how to convert CO2 into ethanol but they thought that it would include multiple steps that will result in an increase I the cost ofproduction. were stumped because they had believed it would require multiple steps and catalysts. However, to their surprise, they discovered that a tiny array of nanoscale copper and carbon spikes mounted on a silicon surface was all that was needed as reported by Engadget

This is how the process works: A nanodroplet of nitrogen is placed on the tip of each of the carbon spikes. The catalyst is then exposed to carbon dioxide and a small electrical charge, which triggers a chemical reaction that is in essence a reverse of the combustion process that turns the CO2 gas into liquid ethanol. Furthermore, the needed catalyst is so minute that the produced ethanol is quite pure and ready for use in generators. The best part is that the process works in room temperature, meaning constructing the facilities to convert CO2 into ethanol can potentially be done cheaply.

Should the technology be further developed and made widely available, it could make a huge impact for renewable energy sources as well as the carbon dioxide crisis that we are currently facing. The system will also be carbon-neutral because carbon dioxide created from burning the ethanol as fuel can simply be harvested and turned back into ethanol.

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