Chemists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory found a way of converting carbon dioxide into fuel by pure chance. The team hopes their breakthrough could help solve climate change issues once and for all.
According to official reports, mankind released 38.2 billion tons of CO2 last year alone. But researchers think their method can turn the pollutant into fuel. They explained they discovered the chemical reaction by accident.
Plus, if engineers manage to scale up the simple process to industrial size, it could help humanity fix global warming. The material that converts CO2 into the useful product represents a new type of catalyst. It iconsists of small spikes of copper and carbon on a silicon frame.
Lead author Adam Rondinone said his team found about what the material can do “somewhat by accident.” The group’s initial goal was to analyze the first phase of a certain reaction. But fortunately, the material did the entire reaction without assistance. Rondinone explained cars can run on ethanol “with no modifications.”
Ethanol is the principal type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks but in large quantities it can cause brain damage. It is used as disinfectant, fuel, and solvent.
During the experiment researchers created a catalyst from nitrogen, copper, and carbon. After they applied voltage to the catalyst, they noticed it has reversed the entire combustion process.
According to a study, the new method can extract ethanol from carbon dioxide with a 63 percent rate of success. Without this method, researchers were able to extract much smaller amounts from different compounds.
Rondinone noted the new method can reverse combustion reaction “with very high rate of selectivity” to yield a product that we can be use as fuel. The team acknowledged the finding was surprising as it is extremely difficult to obtain it with help from a single catalyst.
Nanotechnology Made It Possible
The new material is different from other types of catalysts because of its particular nanostructure: carbon spikes with embedded copper bits. The structure also increases the chances of engineers to scale up the catalyst for real life applications.
Rondinone stated that the materials making up the catalyst are not new but nanotechnology enabled the team to come up with a totally new use keeping side reactions to a minimum. Plus, nanotech keeps the process very precise while reducing the risk of contamination.
Furthermore, the availability of the materials and the fact that researchers can replicate the process at room temperature boost the chances of creating industrial applications.
For instance, the energy industry could insert the catalyst in systems that store wind and solar power. In fact, the process will allow households to store extra energy as ethanol and use it for later. Also, the system could allow the manufacture of a grid that uses at least two types of power sources.
The team currently plans to improve the approach, increase the yield of ethanol, and further analyze the catalyst and its possible applications.
The team published a paper on the discovery in the journal ChemistrySelect.
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