Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something useful with the excess carbon dioxide other than capture it, compress it, and bury it at the bottom of the ocean? Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory may have discovered a way to turn CO2 into something that is used in our industry.

According to an ANL press release, researchers at the lab, working with collaborators at Northern Illinois University, discovered a new electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency, large selection capacity for the desired end product and low cost.

Ethanol is a particularly attractive product because it is an ingredient in almost all essences and is commonly used as a by-product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

The resulting process of our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which involves the reuse of carbon dioxide.

Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist in the chemical sciences and engineering division of Argonne.

The new electrochemical process converts carbon dioxide emitted by industrial processessuch as fossil fuel power plants or alcohol fermentation plants into a valuable product at a reasonable cost.

The catalyst breaks down carbon dioxide and water molecules and selectively reassembles them in ethanol using an external electric field.

With this research, we discovered a new catalytic mechanism to convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol. The mechanism should also provide a basis for the development of highly efficient electrocatalysts for the conversion of carbon dioxide into a wide range of value-added chemicals.

Tao Xu, professor of physical chemistry and nanotechnology at the University of Northern Illinois.

Since CO2 is a stable molecule, its transformation into a different molecule usually requires large amounts of energy, making the conversion process expensive.

We could couple the process of electrochemical conversion of CO2 to ethanol using our catalyst to the power grid and take advantage of the low cost electricity available from renewable sources such as solar and wind during off-peak hours.

Di-Jia Liu.

Because the process operates at low temperature and pressure, it can start and stop quickly in response to the intermittent supply of renewable electricity.

The research results open up new horizons that could lead to further improvements in catalyst design.

More information: www.anl.gov