Ethanol is one of the key ingredients in modern petrol, in fact in the US it is required that all fuel contains at least 10 per cent ethanol.
At present ethanol is produced from fermented corn, a process that drastically eats into the food industry. Indeed to produce the 14 million billion galleons of ethanol that the US consumes every year the US has to set aside millions of acres of farmland.
That could soon be about to change however as scientists claim they’ve potentially found a way to create ethanol sustainably and at the scale required without the need for farmland.
Instead they create the ethanol using water, carbon dioxide and a copper catalyst. That’s it.
The team from Stanford University were focusing in particular on the copper catalysts and how they could increase performance.
“One of our long-range goals is to produce renewable ethanol in a way that doesn’t impact the global food supply,” explained study principal investigator Thomas Jaramillo.
To do this they would create a copper catalyst that could selectively convert carbon dioxide into ethanol and propanol without any of the pesky by-products.
They chose three specific samples with varying sizes of crystals.
“Copper (100), (111) and (751) look virtually identical but have major differences in the way their atoms are arranged on the surface,” said Christopher Hahn, an associate staff scientist.
What they initially found was that the crystals were simply too small to return any meaningful data. To combat this the team focused on creating larger crystals.
Once they’d achieved this the results were clear, sample 751 was by far and away the highest performing.
“The eye on the prize is to create better catalysts that have game-changing potential by taking carbon dioxide as a feedstock and converting it into much more valuable products using renewable electricity or sunlight directly,” Jaramillo said.