New Process Discovered to Convert CO2 to Ethanol

A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory reports a technological breakthrough that could have an impact on some of the most perplexing environmental and energy issues of our day — how to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and coming up with an efficient method of storing excess energy produced by the electric grid.

The team was studying how to use nanotechnology to control chemical reactions. I their work they came across a method using a copper nanoparticle catalyst that allows them to take carbon dioxide and convert it into ethanol. They say this discovery was actually an accident since they were actually expecting to produce methanol.

Ethanol produced from food crops is widely used today as a liquid fuel for vehicles; however, many people are concerned that using crops to produce fuel has an adverse effect on the amount of food available.

According to their reports, the catalytic conversion process is an efficient enough (as high as 70 per cent), to be suitable for using excess power from the electric grid to produce ethanol as a means of storing energy.

A short video report is below.

A full report on the process has been published in an article in the journal Chemistry Select here:

  • atanguy

    Planting trees maybe a better solution to trap carbon dioxyde…

  • Mike

    I don’t really see any real sensational about this. CO2 must be combined with something that contains hydrogen. The Sabatier reaction uses CO2 and H2 to produce methane, so the idea of using CO2 to produce a fuel that can be transported or used in an existing infrastructure is not new.

  • Christopher Calder

    If this process does not use any fresh plant growth, then I have no objection to it even though ethanol is a very low energy undesirable fuel that attracts water out of the atmosphere. The older “Green Freedom” CO2-from-the-atmosphere derived synthetic fuel process has never gone anywhere because it is so expensive. That process can make high energy density gasoline from atmospheric CO2, but the costs are very high.

    I think it is a wise idea to use low cost, easy to implement methods to reduce the output of CO2 into the atmosphere as a precautionary measure, but I do not believe that there is any proof that atmospheric CO2 causes dangerous global warming. Carbon dioxide is a relatively impotent greenhouse gas, not a potent killer greenhouse gas that we should all fear, and there is not much of it,… less than .04% of the atmosphere. That said, using LENR, simplified hot fusion, or molten salt thorium reactors to produce systemic fuel would be better than what we have now, with the added bonus of lower air pollution and reduced CO2 output. CO2 is not a “pollutant”, but other chemicals are produced when we burn diesel fuel and gasoline that are pollutants. I cannot imagine using ethanol to power ships because it is so low in energy per gallon.

    I have a new compilation video on the climate change controversy at:

    • Ged

      Where tech like this may also be useful is for other planetary bodies, such as Mars. There are already ideas to get O2, methane and other rocket fuel componants from the negligable atmosphere and soil there, but as the atmosphere is ~90% CO2, this process may be pretty good for making ethanol in particular. Not going to use that for rocket fuel or as a major power source, but it has a lot more uses for medical or fuel cell that a starting out colony could need.

  • Ciaranjay

    Pull the CO2 out of the air, burn it as fuel, put it back into the air.
    How is this a solution to excess CO2 in the atmosphere?
    However, I agree it is better than using valuable agricultural land to create ethanol fuel and causing food crop prices to increase.

    • TVulgaris

      Even partially closing the loop makes a difference- perhaps a large enough one.

      • Ciaranjay

        Presumably the additional energy needed to pull the CO2 out of the air also creates additional CO2.

    • Ged

      The global biosphere is remarkably increasing in productivity due to the higher CO2 levels (nothing compared to CO2 levels in the deep past of course, like the late Cretaceous which was around 1700 ppm or so; nor green houses which use around 2000 ppm typically to boost plant productivity), which means more food and biodiversity for animals and better crops for us ( ). So, the current levels of CO2 are very much good–but too high will not stay that way.

      The whole point of biofuels or the process described here is recycle CO2, so that levels become steady state and no longer increase. It basically plugs our energy into the carbon cycle, instead of adding new carbon through CO2 from deep earth carbon stores (oil, coal, nat gas). We could even reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere with these processes at a high enough volume (particularly if 70% conversion rate they claim at today’s concentrations is accurate). But that would be a very bad idea. If too much CO2 leaves the atmosphere, the greening we see today reverses, mass die offs will occur, and once CO2 gets low enough (around 140 ppm or so) most plant life will go extinct, taking most animal life with it.

      We shouldn’t demonize or be afraid of CO2, but understand its parameters for the biosphere. As, on long enough time scales, CO2 has been decreasing over the life of this planet as it gets deposited in the ocean floor as carbonate minerals and the slow in volcanism hasn’t kept up in replenishing–meaning eventually the planet may run out of CO2 at levels needed for most life, and even us tapping into the planetary carbon stores is just a temporary delay in that end as carbon continues to be locked away in solid rock.

      • Ciaranjay

        Fair enough, you could take the view that there is no straight forward answer to what is the best level for atmospheric CO2. What is good for humans may not be optimal for plants, or even sea life.
        However along with the benefits of higher CO2 in the Cretaceous, such as no poler ice caps, was the result that the sea level was 100 to 200 meters higher than today.

        Also as this great experiment of releasing CO2 continues there is the real worry that we cross unknown thresholds where the climate adjusts into a new pattern such that the Asian monsoon weakens, or shifts where the rain falls, or perhaps California becomes drier.

        • Ged

          Indeed. Right now, at the current level, things are great. But how much higher can it go before things stop being so great for us? No one knows for sure due to just how many factors are working at the same time. We would probably be fine with around 500-600 ppm, but probably not so beyond that.

          Methods like in this article could allow us to hold CO2 around those nice set points that keep the world the way we and life as it is now are familiar. We’ll have to see if it or other technologies pan out. We are close to or at peak oil demand according to what we see of the global market, so we may be at or past the half way point for human induced CO2 increase. There are a lot of unknowns we are still working to solve, which is why processes like the above are so important to develop to hedge our best and give us options if we have to drop fossil fuels cold turkey.

  • cashmemorz

    What would the deniers argument towards such activity be?

    “See, we told ya, another way to make money off of the green scam. Then, when too much CO2 is pulled out of the air, the plants won’t have enough to grow and another “green” scam will have to be found to cover that. When a solution is found the “green scientists” will take credit while making big money. All part of the long green con to make themselves rich.”

    I shouldn’t fuel their fire but I like the comic relief I get thinking up these devious protocols.

    • TVulgaris

      There seems to be a straight line connecting “serious” CT people, and deniers generally fall into this category, and stupidity, nothing devious about it…
      But I also derive tremendous entertainment value reading and watch the videos from the CT camp when they’re not banal.

  • clovis ray

    Nice one Frank,
    We can only hope it pans out to be ,economical , and it’s another nail in the coffin lid of big oil.

  • wpj

    “The overpotential. . .probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst“

    Always best to read the summary rather than the headlines!

    • Ged

      I guess it’s a long process to find a process to make a process to process CO2.

      • TVulgaris


    • TVulgaris

      The overpotential is a little over a volt, so I’m not understanding that point, maybe leakage is the stumbling block. They did go on to suggest some tweaks (that seem straighforward, just totally outside the basis of this experiment). No, this doesn’t produce a liquid hydrocarbon “for free”, but it seems to be-
      A- very cheap to produce relative to other high-efficiency catalysts that have reasonable selectivity for producing alcohols (since most of them involve Pd, Pt, Au, Rh, and other familiar expensive metals)
      B- fairly efficient (I come up with 58% overall, which takes a little digging into the numbers)
      C- easily scalable
      D- much more useful as a carbon sequestration tool rather than a fuel production tool, although that’s not a bad energy storage solution.

      The fact that this is so selective for ethanol is surprising and interesting in that it indicates much research potential (get it?) for “novel reaction mechanisms”, involving more than just a few electrons.

      • wpj

        I agree in that it may be possible to use “green energy” when it is not required (such as wind farms during the night) and use this and an energy reservoir.

        The over potential is just that the energy of the material coming out is less than the energy going in, so you don’t want to make it using fossile fuel energy (e-cat may help here).

  • Warthog

    Interesting. Seventy percent conversion is pretty high for an initial lab experiment (and yes, I saw the quibble “as high as”). Still very much potential.

  • GordonDocherty

    Ethanol, of course, is not just used for fuel… perhaps there will now not just be Whiskey, Gin and Vodka, there will now also be … Oak Ridge?