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Eureka! Scientists Accidentally Discover How to Directly Convert CO2 to Ethanol

Oct 21, 2016 04:50 AM EDT

Just recently, it was announced that the earth has reached the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 in 4 million years. What is even worse than the news itself is that it is irreversible, meaning we'll never be able to go back to "safe levels" again. So what do we do with all that CO2? Convert them into fuel.

In an experiment to figure out how CO2 can be transformed to a fuel source, scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory had accidentally discovered a catalyst that would do the conversion directly.

Science Alert said the scientists did an electrochemical process using tiny spikes of catalysts made of carbon, copper and nitrogen. After applying electric current of just 1.2 volts, the catalyst converted a solution of CO2 dissolved in water into ethanol, with a yield of 63 percent.

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

"We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realized that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own."

The discovery was absolutely unprecedented and entirely amazing as the chemical reaction essentially reverses the combustion process with just a diminutive amount of electricity. In addition, it yielded 63% desirable chemical, a number that is relatively high.

"We're taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we're pushing that combustion reaction backwards with very high selectivity to a useful fuel," Rondinone told

The researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications as the materials needed to do the process are cheap and the experiment can be done in room temperature.

"A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it's available to make and store as ethanol," Rondinone said. "This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources."

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