Scientists Have Discovered a Way to Turn CO2 into Ethanol. Here's What That Means.

Oct 20, 2016

Texas produces more carbon dioxide than any other state in the country. That’s a problem because CO2 is a big cause of global climate change. But what if the greenhouse gas could be turned into a carbon-neutral fuel source? A group of researchers say they have done just that.


Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee were looking for a way to convert carbon dioxide into something useful. As a first step they ran it through a process involving water, electricity and tiny spikes of carbon and copper.

It turns out, that’s all they had to do. The CO2 changed to ethanol, a fuel we use today to power our cars.

Scientists intended to use graphene as a catalyst for the reaction, but didn't have the materials to do so. The material they did have ended up being integral to their discovery.
Credit Oak Ridge National Labs

“It was a huge surprise,” said Adam Rondinone, who headed up the team that made the discovery. “It was the sort of thing that makes you glad to be a scientist.”

The process could have special applications in a state like Texas that not only produces a lot of CO2, but also produces a lot of wind power.  The reason is the way the electric grid works when it's loaded with intermittently available renewable energy. 

“When there’s extra electricity on the grid, when the wind turbines are really moving fast, instead of going and turning down the other [power plants] which costs money to do, we could just dump that into ethanol,” Rondinone said. “And, then, the ethanol could be distributed and used.”

That approach could overcome two of the major challenges that have plagued scientists and renewable energy advocates for years.

First, it would provide a way of capturing power generated by renewables and storing it for later. That's something that's been a Holy Grail for researchers as it could allow people to stop relying on fossil fuels for energy. 

Second, it would be a way of capturing climate-warming CO2. That's been a second Holy Grail (yes, in this analogy there are two) because it would mitigate the climate damage caused by burning fossil fuels.  

The idea that these two challenges could be overcome by one discovery has a lot of people pretty excited. Maybe a little too excited.

Dan Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, says some of the media coverage around the discovery has been unrealistic. 

“It’s very cool science they did, and it could have some niche applications,” Cohan says. “But – sorry to break the bad news – we haven’t solved climate change this week.”

Cohan says it remains to be seen whether using excess electricity to create ethanol is a better use for it than simply storing it in batteries. He’s also skeptical that the amount of CO2 that could be used by this process would be enough to slow global warming.

“The magnitude of the problem is just far too great to think we can just soak it all up into ethanol fuel,” he says.

The team at Oak Ridge agrees there’s a lot more work to do to before the new technology can leave the lab and find real world applications. They plan to team up with other researchers to further measure the energy efficiency and economic viability of their discovery.