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Stanford Scientists develop New Process to produce Ethanol

Apr 12, 2014 11:30 AM EDT
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Scientists at Stanford University have discovered an efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas.
Scientists at Stanford University have discovered an efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas, with the hope that it will serve as an eco-friendly alternative to the use of corn and other crops to produce ethanol.
(Photo : Matthew Kanan)

Scientists at Stanford University have discovered an efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas, with the hope that it will serve as an eco-friendly alternative to the use of corn and other crops to produce ethanol, according to a release from the school.

Conventionally, high-temperature fermentation facilities chemically convert corn, sugarcane, and other plants into liquid fuel, but such a process requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water.

"We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure - a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction," said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the study, which originally appeared in Nature.

The technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li does not require fermentation and could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production.

"Our study demonstrates the feasibility of making ethanol by electrocatalysis," Kanan said. "But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical."

The goal for Kanan is to make a large-scale version of the process carbon neutral by finding a way to pull carbon monoxide from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels. Kanan hopes to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce carbon monoxide, which would be fed to a copper catalyst to make liquid fuel. The carbon dioxide released during fuel combustion would be re-used to make more carbon monoxide and more fuel.

"Prior to our study, there was a sense that no catalyst could efficiently reduce carbon monoxide to a liquid," said Kanan. "We have a solution to this problem that's made of copper, which is cheap and abundant. We hope our results inspire other people to work on our system or develop a new catalyst that converts carbon monoxide to fuel."

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