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Accidental Scientific Discovery Could Hold the Key to Sustainable Clean Energy Future

Image via Mashable

Image via Mashable

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Earlier this month, U.S. scientists stumbled upon a way to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a greenhouse gas that results from burning fossil fuels and contributes significantly to global warming. Ethanol is a far cleaner energy source that many, including the United States and Chinese governments, see as an important part of the segue into a clean energy future. Best of all, the newly discovered process could be efficient and economically practical:

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab in Tennessee, have discovered a mechanism for converting carbon dioxide into ethanol. Their method takes advantage of nanotechnology, creating a catalyst that produces ethanol from a solution of carbon dioxide in water.

The discovery may change the way we think about carbon dioxide. If it could be captured and turned into a fuel, then carbon dioxide – the earth-polluting byproduct of global dependence on fossil fuels – could help high-energy societies work toward energy independence.

The discovery was essentially an accident. Researchers were pleasantly surprised when they noted the unintended results of their experiment:

The researchers had been attempting to discover a series of chemical reactions that would revert carbon dioxide – a byproduct of fuel consumption – back to a fuel. They found the first step in the process not only worked, but even cheaply and efficiently produced ethanol.

“Ethanol was a surprise – it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst,” Adam Rondinone, a lead author of the team’s study published in the online journal ChemistrySelect, said in a press release.

The advantages of this discovery extend beyond simply energy production. The conversion of CO2 to ethanol could also be useful in energy capture and storage, which is integral to maintaining a seamless energy supply when using renewables such as solar and wind:

“A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it’s available to make and store as ethanol. This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources,” [researcher Adam Rondinone said.]

That is a big deal, because ORNL’s process chemically negates a harmful substance with common materials and only 1.2 volts of electricity – and it works at room temperature, meaning “it can be started and stopped easily with little energy cost,” Popular Mechanics explains. They point out another additional benefit, too: the process could also be used “as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.”

This is by no means the answer to all of Earth’s energy consumption issues, but it is nonetheless an exciting development in the quest to combat climate change and develop a sustainable clean energy sector.


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