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Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

ORNL scientists have developed an electrochemical process that uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol.

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed an electrochemical process that uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol.

– We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked. We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realised that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own, remarked Adam Rondinone, lead author of the ORNL team’s study “High-Selectivity Electrochemical Conversion of CO2 to Ethanol using a Copper Nanoparticle/N-Doped Graphene Electrode” recently published in Chemistry Select.

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst, the solution of CO2 dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

– We’re taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we’re pushing that combustion reaction backwards with very high selectivity to a useful fuel. Ethanol was a surprise – it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst, said Rondinone.

Nano-scale structure

The novelty lies in its nanoscale structure, consisting of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon spikes. This nano-texturing approach avoids the use of expensive or rare metals such as platinum that limit the economic viability of many catalysts.

– By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want, said Rondinone.

The researchers’ initial analysis suggests that the spiky textured surface of the catalysts provides ample reactive sites to facilitate the carbon dioxide-to-ethanol conversion.

– They are like 50-nanometer lightning rods that concentrate electrochemical reactivity at the tip of the spike, explained Rondinone.

Yang Song (seated), Dale Hensley (standing left) and Adam Rondinone examine a carbon nanospike sample with a scanning electron microscope (photo courtesy ORNL).

Yang Song (seated), Dale Hensley (standing left) and Adam Rondinone examine a carbon nanospike sample with a scanning electron microscope (photo courtesy ORNL).

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For example, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

– 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, said Rondinone.

The researchers plan to refine their approach to improve the overall production rate and further study the catalyst’s properties and behaviour.

5517/AS

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