Stanford University scientists have discovered a new way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. The researchers believe the discovery could provide an “green” alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops. The results were published in the April issue of Nature.
“We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure – a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study.
According to Kanan, most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. But growing crops for biofuel requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water. He cites a study that found it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields around 3 gallons of ethanol.
The new technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, they team says could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production today.
“Our study demonstrates the feasibility of making ethanol by electrocatalysis,” Kanan said. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical.”
Two years ago, Kanan and Li created a novel electrode made of a material they called oxide-derived copper. They used the term “oxide-derived” because the metallic electrode was produced from copper oxide.
“Conventional copper electrodes consist of individual nanoparticles that just sit on top of each other,” Kanan explained. “Oxide-derived copper, on the other hand, is made of copper nanocrystals that are all linked together in a continuous network with well-defined grain boundaries. The process of transforming copper oxide into metallic copper creates the network of nanocrystals.” Continue reading