Science, Now + Beyond

Scientists just converted CO2 into something amazingly useful

Global warming is not going away, but scientists might have discovered a way to put all of those dangerous CO2 emissions to good use.

Global warming is not going away, but scientists might have discovered a way to put all of those dangerous CO2 emissions to good use. This month, researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee announced their discovery of a catalyst that can transform CO2 into ethanol. That’s taking a greenhouse gas and turning it into a new source of energy. There must be some catch, right? So far no. The Oak Ridge catalyst works cheaply and effectively!

Why exactly, you might ask, is this announcement so exciting? Lots of reasons, but here are the main ones:

1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Many of us remember that moment when we realized how dangerous CO2 can be. For me, it was during my first viewing of An Inconvenient Truth when Al Gore demonstrated how rapidly CO2 levels are rising. In case you don’t remember that moment as vividly as me, CO2 is a greenhouse gas responsible for most of the climate changes we’ve seen in recent years. In a normal ecosystem, animals breath in oxygen and breath out CO2 while plants breathe in CO2 and release oxygen — keeping the world nicely balanced. But, when things besides animals start breathing out CO2 (like cars), then the atmosphere becomes much less balanced.

The Oak Ridge team’s announcement that they had successfully transformed CO2 into Ethanol was especially exciting because it suggests that there might be some use for all the extra CO2 emissions in our atmosphere. As Rondinone explained, “We’re taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we’re pushing that combustion reaction backward with very high selectivity to a useful fuel.”

2. Ethanol

One of the most exciting parts of the Oak Ridge team’s announcement was not only that they managed to get rid of some CO2, but that they transformed it into ethanol.

Ethanol is a biofuel or energy source made out of organic matter. It’s especially valuable these days because it’s a cleaner form of energy than fossil fuels. Ethanol is typically produced from corn and sugar, but apparently, you can also make it from carbon dioxide. The Oak Ridge team was just as surprised as we were when they discovered that they had created Ethanol. Adam Rondinone, a member of the Oak Ridge research group, announced in a press release that, “Ethanol was a surprise – it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst.”

3. Future Developments

Though the Oak Ridge catalyst is exciting all by itself, it’s even more exciting when you think about what it could mean for the future. Scientists beyond the Oak Ridge team have commented on this, including Dr. Jeremy Martin of the Union of Concerned Scientists. During an interview with Al Jazeera, Martin explained, “This work is building the foundation for a chemical industry that runs on electricity and CO2, which can help us build a zero-carbon economy. Improving yield and efficiency and developing catalysts that do not require rare elements is critical to scaling these processes up cost-effectively.” As building blocks go, the Oak Ridge catalyst is a pretty amazing step towards clean energy.

So how exactly did the Oak Ridge research team stumble upon this awesome catalyst? Apparently, by luck. The research team has said that they “serendipitously” discovered the catalyst during their research.

What an awesome accident.