The rare feat of turning carbon dioxide directly into ethanol through an electrochemical process has been achieved by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In the accidental discovery, they used small splinters of carbon and copper for triggering a series of chemical reactions to turn carbon dioxide into fuel ethanol.

Much to their surprise, they found copper and carbon that combined on a silicon surface as slender splinters gave rise to precise reactions and had reduced contaminants.

The experiment's nanofabrication part had a certain voltage applied on the catalyst that is made of copper, carbon and nitrogen to overcome the process of combustion.

 "We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked," said ORNL's Adam Rondinone, lead author of the team's study published in ChemistrySelect.

According to the scientists, the catalyst took over the whole reaction chain as it had innumerable reaction sites to turn out ethanol with a 63 percent yield.

Multiple Advantages Of The Nano Process

Among the advantages cited for the process, vis-à-vis other methods, the use of commonplace materials such as copper and carbon for conversion into ethanol was the major highlight.

Yet another benefit was zero energy cost as the conversion can happen at day temperature that took in water. It also offers the advantage of being used as a standby in case there are fluctuations in renewable energy grids.

Thanks to the minute texturing style used in the experiment, precious metals like platinum are not at all required and makes the whole method economically feasible.

The team leader admits that ethanol was a surprise find as it was highly difficult to draw the fuel straight from carbon dioxide.

"We're taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion pushing that combustion reaction backward with very high selectivity to a useful fuel," Rondinone said.

Analysts have pointed out that the textured surface of the catalyst holds the key to the conversion with its multifarious centers aiding the process.

Again, the low-cost potential of the process gives the scope in scaling it up for applications in different industries.

On energy storage, the process gives the option of storing excess power produced from varied power sources such as solar and wind as a commercial opportunity.

The researchers are now embarking on a plan to increase the rate of production and expand the catalyst's properties.

As for the institution, ORNL, it is owned and funded by the government with a mission to expand nanotechnology applications in areas like catalysis. The ethanol conversion was an offshoot of the work on a special catalyst called electrocatalyst where the team was applying nanotechnology norms for regulating chemical reactions.

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