Breakthrough Electrocatalyst Turns Carbon Dioxide Into Ethanol

A research team led by scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and Northern Illinois University has discovered a new electrocatalyst that can consistently convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and low cost.

Because carbon dioxide is a stable molecule, transforming it into a different molecule is normally energy intensive and costly.

But the new process can electrochemically convert the carbon dioxide emitted from industrial processes—such as fossil fuel or alcohol fermentation plants—into a valuable commodity at reasonable cost. Ethanol is an ingredient in nearly all U.S. gasoline and is widely used as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries.

“The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide,” said Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division and a UChicago CASE scientist in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago.

The findings were published recently in the journal Nature Energy.

The team’s catalyst consists of atomically dispersed copper on a carbon-powder support. By an electrochemical reaction, this catalyst breaks down carbon dioxide and water molecules and selectively reassembles the broken molecules into ethanol under an external electric field.