Convert Carbon Dioxide and Water into Ethanol

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Artist's rendering of electrocatalytic process for conversion of carbon dioxide and water into ethanol
Artist’s rendering of electrocatalytic process for conversion of carbon dioxide and water into ethanol
Argonne National Laboratory

Researchers at the US Dept of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, working with Northern Illinois University, have discovered a new catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with “very high energy efficiency, high selectivity for the desired final product and low cost.”

Once the ethanol is created, it can be used as a fuel additive, or as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Using it as a fuel would be an example of a “circular carbon economy,” in which CO2 recaptured from the atmosphere is effectively put back in as it’s burned.

If the process is powered by renewable energy, which the researchers say it can be due to its low-temperature, low-pressure operation and easy responsiveness to intermittent power, then great; all you’re losing is fresh water, which is its own issue.

Realistically, you’re still a lot better off running an EV than a car fueled with gasoline using this ethanol as an additive. While its Faradaic efficiency might be excellent, its overall electrical efficiency won’t be; putting the same amount of energy into a battery will get more power to the wheels at the end of the day, because combustion engines are horribly inefficient in comparison to electric powertrains, and there will be additional significant power losses at this catalysis stage, as well as the industrial carbon capture and transport stages.

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