Many scientific discoveries of the past (penicillin is probably the best known) have occurred randomly. A similar event happened in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy: Researchers have developed an electrochemical process that converts carbon dioxide into ethanol using a single catalyst. The discovery was fortuitous, since the purpose of the experiment was to study only the first step of the chemical reaction.

The team used a catalyst composed of copper, carbon and nitrogen to which a voltage to trigger the complex chemical reaction has been applied which, essentially, converts the combustion process. With this catalyst, the carbon dioxide dissolved in water solution has been converted into ethanol with a yield of 63%. A similar result can usually be obtained with minimal amounts of different products. As catalysts will often use expensive or rare metals, such as platinum. In this case, the materials are very common and cheap.

Thanks to nanotechnology, the team created a series of carbon and copper “spike” on a silicon substrate and positioned a nano-drop of nitrogen on your toes, as you can see in this image under the microscope.

By applying a small electrical charge, the catalyst triggers the chain reaction that converts the gas in ethanol. Since the catalyst is at the nanoscale, the process does not produce side effects, so ethanol is almost 100% pure . And all this takes place at room temperature.

The discovery could be used for various industrial applications. The process could be used, for example, to store excess electricity generated by renewable sources (sun and wind). Rather than store it in huge batteries, electricity could be converted into ethanol. The carbon dioxide emitted during the combustion of ethanol would in turn used by the catalyst, resulting in a process of zero emissions .