In a new twist to waste-to-fuel technology, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed an electrochemical process that uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to turn carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into ethanol. Their finding, which involves nanofabrication and catalysis science, was serendipitous.
We report an electrocatalyst which operates at room temperature and in water for the electroreduction of dissolved CO2 with high selectivity for ethanol. The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst, but the high selectivity for a 12-electron reaction suggests that nanostructured surfaces with multiple reactive sites in close proximity can yield novel reaction mechanisms. This suggests that the synergistic effect from interactions between Cu and CNS presents a novel strategy for designing highly selective electrocatalysts. While the entire reaction mechanism has not yet been elucidated, further details would be revealed from conversion of potential intermediates (e. g. CO, formic acid and acetaldehyde) in future work.