Making Ethanol from CO2 at ORNL Sparks Considerable Interest
by Carolyn Krause (OakRidger) … According to the video, the ORNL nanotechnology researchers were experimenting with graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms linked together in hexagons somewhat like chicken wire. Their intention was to use this nanomaterial to stimulate the formation of methanol from carbon dioxide.
The experiment failed, so they made electrically conductive carbon nanospikes embedded with copper nanoparticles. These “50-nanometer lightning rods” had concentrated electric fields at their tips. The nitrogen they added increased the bonding between carbon atoms. They applied a voltage and were pleased to discover they had made ethanol — or alcohol — instead.
Rondinone said several companies have shown an interest in harnessing the ORNL discovery, including distilleries.
Industries expressing interest include fuel-cell companies and biorefineries, or fermenters of corn.
“Fermenters produce more carbon dioxide than ethanol,” he added. “They are interested in our process so they can capture the CO2 and use it to make more ethanol.”
Since the ORNL reaction to make ethanol from carbon dioxide requires electricity, ORNL researchers believe the electrochemical process could be used as a low-cost battery. It could store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind, which doesn’t always blow, and solar, which works only when the sun is shining.
“This process could suck the extra electricity that’s available to make ethanol and store the energy,” Rondinone said. “This could help balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.”
The liquid ethanol made by the ORNL process could be transported by pipeline and truck for use in cars. Brian West of the ORNL Vehicle Technology group told Rondinone automobile engines can be designed to run efficiently on ethanol only.
Rondinone told FORNL that the rationale for their research is “to avoid putting additional CO2 into the air and to recycle” what comes out of point sources, possibly even the stacks of coal-fired steam power plants, to produce ethanol.
Aided by charged carbon, copper and nitrogen atoms, ORNL’s electrochemical reactions involving carbon dioxide and water proceed more easily to create ethanol, also a compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. ORNL studies have concluded that this process uses 22 percent of the electricity introduced to the ORNL process, making it 22 times as efficient as plant life.
The researchers are working on improving the efficiency. READ MORE