Researchers Develop New, Cheap Way to Turn CO2 Into Ethanol
Researchers at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have discovered a cheap, efficient way to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, potentially reducing the amount of new carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.
The method, published in Nature Energy in late July, uses a copper-based catalyst to transform carbon dioxide into ethanol, which is used in almost all U.S. gasoline.
"The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide," study coauthor and Argonne senior chemist Di-Jia Liu explained in a press release.
Catalysts are an important tool in industrial processes used to speed up chemical reactions, Argonne National Laboratory explained. In conventional energy, they are used to convert heavy oil into jet fuel and gasoline. The new catalyst would be put to less carbon-intensive purposes by converting the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil-fuel plants or alcohol fermentation into ethanol that could be either recycled as fuel or used to make chemicals, drugs or cosmetics. Liquid fuel can also be used to store the output from renewable energy for future use, the paper explained.
In a 2019 deep-dive for Vox on different potential uses of carbon dioxide, David Roberts pointed out that it is always better from a climate crisis standpoint to electrify energy use directly rather than using that power to convert carbon dioxide into fuel. However, carbon-based fuels could be an important tool for reducing the emissions of sectors that are hard to decarbonize otherwise, like industry. They do not remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they do reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions relative to what they would have been if conventional fuels were burned.
"Carbon-neutral liquid fuels for sectors that are difficult to decarbonize are both a large market and a key piece of the decarbonization puzzle," Roberts wrote.
But turning carbon dioxide into a different molecule is typically both energy intensive and expensive because carbon dioxide is so stable, according to the Argonne National Laboratory: The new catalyst, however, is highly efficient.
The lab explained how it works:
The team's catalyst consists of atomically dispersed copper on a carbon-powder support. By an electrochemical reaction, this catalyst breaks down CO2 and water molecules and selectively reassembles the broken molecules into ethanol under an external electric field. The electrocatalytic selectivity, or "Faradaic efficiency," of the process is over 90 percent, much higher than any other reported process. What is more, the catalyst operates stably over extended operation at low voltage.
Because the process can work at low pressures and temperatures, it can be paired with renewable energy technologies. This is because it will be able to stop and restart easily in response to a changing power supply.
"We could couple the electrochemical process of CO2-to-ethanol conversion using our catalyst to the electric grid and take advantage of the low-cost electricity available from renewable sources like solar and wind during off-peak hours," Liu said.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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