(ORDO NEWS) — Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory working with Northern Illinois University have discovered a new catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide and water to ethanol with “very high energy efficiency, high selectivity for the desired end product, and low cost.”
The new catalyst is made from atomically dispersed copper based on carbon powder and acts as an electrocatalyst in a low voltage electric field as water and carbon dioxide pass through it. The reaction breaks down these molecules and then selectively rearranges them to ethanol with an electrocatalytic selectivity (or “Faraday efficiency”) of over 90%. The team claims that this is “much higher than any other recorded process of its kind.”
Once ethanol is created, it can be used as a fuel additive or as an intermediate in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Using it as a fuel would be an example of a “circular carbon economy” in which CO2 captured from the atmosphere is efficiently recycled back as it burns.
If the process uses renewable energy, then the situation is even better; all that will be lost in the process is fresh water. This in itself is a problem, but it can be solved. But in practice it is much better to drive an electric car than a car that runs on gasoline and uses this ethanol as an additive.
Although its Faraday efficiency may be excellent, the overall electrical efficiency will not be the same; transferring the same amount of power to the battery will give more power to spin the wheels because combustion engines are terribly inefficient compared to electric powertrains. This stage of catalysis will also experience additional (and significant) power losses in the industrial carbon capture and transport stages.
It is also impossible at this stage to predict what the costs might be. A number of synthetic fuels already exist that use catalytically captured carbon dioxide; Carbon Engineering, for example, is one of the firms that extracts CO2 from the air to create a synthetic oil that can be refined, for example, into high-purity jet fuel.
Such synthetic fuels must compete with conventional fossil gasoline on price. Without knowing how ethanol, which captures carbon, competes with bioethanol and other fuels, it is difficult to say if the project will be a commercial success and will be the factor that will significantly change the fuel industry.
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