Researchers are developing a process for converting carbon dioxide into ethanol

Researchers from institutions worldwide have been working to develop a method that will allow them to convert pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and hydrogen into ethanol. Ethanol is a fuel that can be used to power anything that uses an internal combustion engine. The researchers believe they're taking a significant step towards realizing what they call a "nearly green" zero-net-carbon technology for converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen into ethanol.The research is led by scientists from the US Department of Energy Brookhaven National Laboratory. Working together, the team discovered combining cesium, copper, and zinc oxide into what they call a close contact configuration to catalyze a reaction transforming carbon dioxide into ethanol. Along with discovering the catalyst to power the reaction, researchers have also learned why their method is successful.

The major benefit of the new reaction is that it could one day lead to the ability for industry to capture their emitted CO2 and converted it into usable fuel or other chemicals. Interestingly, any of the trio of catalysts taken separately are unable to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Only in the presence of all three does the reaction catalyze.

Researchers also discovered during experiments they were also unable to catalyze the reaction into ethanol when using pairs of the catalysts. Only when cesium, copper, and zinc oxide are all combined does the reaction work. Past work has been performed on converting carbon dioxide to methanol, but the conversion of carbon dioxide ethanol is safer, and as a fuel, ethanol is more potent.

The reaction interface requires researchers to deposit small amounts of copper and cesium onto a surface made from zinc oxide. During their experiments, the team learned that cesium is a vital component of the active system. Without it, ethanol can't be made. However, scientists admit there's much more to learn about the process, and there's no clear indication of when or if the process might be commercialized.