Automotive emission, cement and other materials production, deforestation and our respiration – everything has led to increase of the amount of carbon dioxide present on this Earth. It is not that carbon dioxide was not present on the Earth before but, when present in moderation, it helps by trapping the heat at nights and hence keeping the nights warm and cosy. This is called Greenhouse effect. However, we increased the amount of CO2 (major greenhouse gas) and other greenhouse gases like water vapour, CFC’s etc. and greenhouse effect turned into Enhanced Greenhouse effect. This led to a big environmental problem – Global Warming. Thus today, scientists are banging their heads on walls to find out a way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide floating around in Earth’s atmosphere. Several expensive methods have been proposed but all of them turned out to be inefficient. Solution? No one really knew until one day…an accident happened! Yes… an accident that led to conversion of carbon dioxide to ethanol!
The Experiment that Converted Carbon Dioxide to Ethanol
It was one fine day of October 2016 when Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s scientists accidentally converted carbon dioxide into ethanol. What more? It is easy, more efficient, gives better yield, can be used the moment it is produced, with less energy, time and money used.
The scientists used nanotechnology principles to control a chemical reaction using a electrocatalyst (an electrocatalyst is a catalyst which operates on electricity and makes a reaction happen quicker). They picked carbon and copper and arranged them on nanospikes on a silicon surface. They tried to reduce the carbon dioxide by taking away oxygen from carbon dioxide and replacing it with Hydrogen. They thought of getting a fuel (such as methane) after multiple steps but… some accidents are good. They converted CO2 to ethanol in the very first step.
When we talk about the yield i.e., how much ethanol is produced from the given carbon dioxide then Adam Rondinone, one of the researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory told that out of 100 electrons 63 of them convert into ethanol and out of 100 carbon dioxide molecules, 84 of them convert into ethanol. This, according to him, is very high and especially for this kind of chemical reaction. But the best advantage of this is the energy consumption. The researchers estimated about 20% of energy consumption, which is very low when compared to other methods. This reaction, unlike many other reactions, take place at room temperature, which is good because the scientists can control and stop the reaction whenever they want.
However, the scientists are working on the chemical reaction to make it work on large scale and to increase the energy efficiency. They are now trying to use two catalysts which would work on carbon dioxide and water each instead of only one catalyst working on both carbon dioxide and water.
If this goes on large scale production, then it can serve two purposes. One, tackling enhanced greenhouse effect which is harming the world and second, it would give ethanol which serves as renewable, liquid fuel which can be used as is and thereby providing us a source of energy which can remains renewable. Renewable? Then here is the answer. Carbon dioxide is converted into ethanol and this ethanol is used as fuel to drive automotive, machines etc. and those would produce CO2 and this is again converted into ethanol and so on and on and on. We will fall prey to yet another vicious cycle – a good one actually!