Scientists just accidentally turned CO2 into fuel

In a serendipitous accident, scientists in Tennessee claim they have converted carbon dioxide into ethanol.

The researchers, who work at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, developed a process that adds “nano-spikes” (essentially tiny bursts) of carbon and copper to CO2 to transform it into ethanol, the type of alcohol found in hand sanitizer and alcoholic drinks. 

Ethanol can also be turned into fuel (gasoline in Brazil already contains more than 25% ethanol), which is why the scientists are calling the discovery a “twist to waste-to-fuel technology.” 

Co2 ethanolYouTube/Oak Ridge National LaboratoryThe carbon nanoparticles (seen above as circles) combine with carbon nanospikes to turn into ethanol.

“We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked,” ORNL’s Adam Rondinone, lead author of the team’s study, said in a press release. “We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realised that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own.”

The team’s experiment was meant to be one part of a longer research project investigating how to turn CO2 into ethanol; the researchers figured the process would require multiple steps and complicated chemical reactions. But it turned out to be a lot easier than they thought: they only needed a single catalyst (copper) to transform the CO2.

The discovery is a major breakthrough, considering the process turns carbon dioxide — one of the leading air pollutants contributing to climate change  — into fuel, which in turn generates more CO2 that could be turned back into more fuel. (Burning a gallon of diesel fuel produces about 22 pounds of CO2.) If
 the technology becomes cost-efficient and widely available, it could provide a new carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuel production.

There’s no word yet on whether the discovery will leave the lab, however.

Watch the scientists explain below:

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