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Nanostructured catalyst converts CO2 to ethanol electrochemically

By Scott Jenkins |

Reducing carbon dioxide to useful fuel molecules is a highly desired objective, but is difficult because the required reactions are energetically unfavorable, and a cost-effective and robust catalyst for the reduction has been elusive. Now researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; www.ornl.gov) may have found such a catalyst — nanostructured carbon with embedded copper nanoparticles — that can convert CO2 to ethanol in an electrochemical cell.

“The reaction between CO2 and the catalyst is kind of a reverse combustion process that takes place in a modified fuel cell,” explains Adam Rondinone, ORNL senior scientist. “It offers a pathway for using renewable electricity to make carbon fuels from a greenhouse gas.”

In March, the ORNL catalyst and electrochemical cell technology was licensed by ReactWell LLC (New Orleans, La.; www.reactwell.com) for further development, and inclusion in industrial process units. “The catalyst is a heavily textured graphene with copper nanoparticles lodged into the surface,” says Rondinone. “The graphene forms carbon ‘nanospikes’ that orient the CO2 molecules to influence the reaction mechanism.” The catalyst material forms localized electric fields, which focus the electrochemical reactivity so that the reaction pathway forms the desired products.

At the cathode of the cell, the catalyst reduces CO2 to CO on the catalyst surface. CO is a reaction intermediate that dimerizes and combines with hydrogen from water (which is co-reduced in the cell) to form ethanol. Oxygen is evolved at the anode.

ReactWell CEO Brandan Iglesias says the first application for the licensed ORNL technology is making ethanol for alcoholic spirits, because it is a low-volume, high-margin market, he explains, and is attractive to enter with this novel electric alcohol technology. Eventually, the technology would be used at petroleum refineries, where CO2 from exhaust gas could be captured and converted into ethanol to upgrade transportation fuel stocks.

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