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Crop Biotech Update

Stanford Develops Copper Catalyst that Produces Ethanol from Carbon Dioxide

August 16, 2017

Stanford University scientists have recently discovered a new, more sustainable way to make ethanol without using crops. Their new technology consists of three basic components: water, carbon dioxide, and electricity delivered through a copper catalyst.

Principal investigator Thomas Jaramillo, an associate professor from Stanford and at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory said that copper is one of the few catalysts that can produce ethanol at room temperature. With just electricity, water and carbon dioxide, it can make ethanol. However, it also makes other compounds simultaneously, including methane and carbon monoxide. Separating these products would be expensive and require a lot of energy.

Scientists aimed to design copper catalysts that selectively convert carbon dioxide into higher-value chemicals and fuels, such as ethanol and propanol, with minimal byproducts. The team chose three samples of crystalline copper, namely copper (100), copper (111) and copper (751). The number describes the surface geometry of each copper crystal.

When the team applied a specific voltage, the electrodes made of copper (751) were far more selective to liquid products, such as ethanol and propanol, compared to the other two. The Stanford team would also like to develop a technology capable of selectively producing carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals at an industrial scale.